Church leaders—particularly pastors—are constantly looking for ways to deliver transformation into the lives of those they lead. But at times the very nature of a transformed life seems to elude us. Even with a solid theological basis for stating how God transforms a life through redemption, we can feel at a loss as to what these transformed lives look like.
The early church needed these same lessons. Both a doctrinal understanding of the work to bring us to Christ and the work to shape us to be like Christ are needed—and both need to be learned. My purpose in this article is to point toward the second issue of the equation: how to help believers live a transformed life. It is an issue that leaders and followers alike must wrestle through: How do I live out the spiritual transformation that has occurred in me?
What Is "Transformation," Really?
Transformation is not about attaining a spiritual standard. A righteous standard is given to us by Christ at the moment of salvation. It’s not about the impossible task of mimicking every action of Jesus. It is about recognizing the life of God within the believer and how to respond to the work of God’s Spirit within us.
When I say “eight marks” of the transformed life, I do not mean “steps.” They are not a process for self-actualization or a legalistic path to holiness. These are signposts of God’s intention, i.e., for Christ to be fully formed in us (Galatians 4:19). The goal is Christ Himself, and as church leaders it should be our goal as well—for ourselves and the ones we lead. Once our hearts are fully set on Christ, our lives will then reflect Him in how we live.
Each day, the believers in your church struggle with the contrast of who they were, who they are to be in Christ, and who they seem to be in their daily lives. Paul wrote to the Roman believers ensuring them that the Holy Spirit would continually work to fully form the image of Christ in them. So when I say “marks,” I mean the biblical indicators of the transformation that already occurred to bring about salvation and are also regularly occurring to develop the character and image of Christ within us (Romans 8:29 and Galatians 4).
This distinction between steps and marks is not a small clarification. It’s a critical distinction and leads down two very different paths. It might be characterized as the difference between what I am doing for God and what God is doing in me. Transformation is about God doing something in me—and me cooperating with Him.
Transformation is not like a cherry tree trying to change itself into an orange tree. It’s about a cherry tree trying to grow up into what it is meant to be—a cherry tree. As believers, we are not trying to become something we’re not. At conversion, we became new creations. Our ongoing transformation is therefore about living out in real time what has been secured for all time. As Paul said about the Corinthians, you used to be immoral (1 Corinthians 6:11), but you were washed! The old has gone, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17)! Christ lives within. Transformation is living by faith in Him within us (Galatians 2:20).
A Picture of a Transformed Life
We’re not trying to conjure up transformation. It’s within us, and we are to “live toward” it. But in doing so, it helps to know what the transformed life looks like. So what does the transformed life look like?
My mind turns to Romans 12 to find a picture of a life transformed by God. Paul wrote eleven chapters of deep doctrine outlining the mystery of the gospel, and then, with Romans 12:1, he launches the early believers into a rapid-fire understanding of living out their spiritual transformation. This chapter displays eight marks that can serve as guideposts in directing believers toward a transformed life.
Teach surrender rather than treaties. The first verse of Romans 12 tells us to be “a living sacrifice.” The problem with living sacrifices is that they squirm on the altar. We need to remind believers to utterly surrender to God’s plans, not strike a treaty for trading favors.
The lesson of surrender often begins with leaders. Whether as a pastor or in a different role of leadership, your life must be an example of living for God’s agenda first, allowing personal desires to fall away. The example of worship as a living sacrifice is where much of our transformation begins. As the leader, be the first to climb on the altar each week.
A transformed life is marked by willing surrender.
Renew their thinking. In 12:2, the transformation is highlighted as an exercise of the mind. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that murder and adultery are committed internally long before acted upon externally. For believers to live out the change brought about by redemption, a spiritual mind is required.
How often has a member of your congregation or Bible study asked, “How can I know the will of God?” The simple solution is to give them the proper starting point—renewing their minds. As we point them toward the life of Jesus in particular and the Scriptures as a whole, their minds will come into alignment with the thoughts of God.
A transformed life is marked by renewed thinking.
Help them embrace and activate their gifting. As Paul transitions from doctrine to practice, his thoughts jump quickly to how all are gifted to serve the church and Christ’s mission (vv. 3–8). But serving in the mission of God is too often understood as a “one size fits all” endeavor. And most believers do not feel as if they fit.
Living the transformed life means participating in the disciple-making process for others in the way God has personally called and equipped you. Empowering believers to serve in the place for which they were designed allows every Christian to aid in others’ transformation.
A transformed life is marked by humble service.
Push love to the forefront. The word “love” is terribly abused in our language. Perhaps it is because we only have one word to refer to our love for a spouse, children, sports team and pizza. The emphasis necessary for living out our transformation is to understand the purity involved with the Christian ideal of love (vv. 9–10). It is the love more associated with a hero’s death than a romantic comedy’s fairy tale ending.
For most of us, it is the removal of hypocrisy that must come first. And one of the most effective means to do this is by guiding believers into closer community with one another. As they are forced to honestly deal with one another’s lives, the character of Christ at work in them will force the choice between love of others and self-preservation. Ask them to look for ways to “outdo one another in showing honor” (v. 10). Love is essentially the choice to value the need of another rather than our own. Though simplistic as a definition, it becomes a manner of living that runs counter to the world.
Transformation shows up in many forms in believers’ lives, but love is one trait that Christ clearly said would distinguish our lives from the rest of the world.
A transformed life is marked by genuine love.
Help them be determined. The triplets of verse 11 say, “Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord.” It feels cliché and trite to say that the Christian life is not a sprint but a marathon. However, it is still true. The imagery throughout the Scriptures shows that God’s people must persist. In our culture, determination is rarely the norm.
Christians sometimes need help understanding how discipleship has much to do with delayed gratification. Over the summer, I traveled twice to Europe: once to do mission work with refugees, and once to speak to a group of missionary personnel from eight countries. In both instances, I appreciated the determination necessary to work in that region of the world. Ministry to refugees in Eastern Europe who have escaped from oppressive regimes is not quick work. It requires patience to win their trust and lead them toward Christ. Similarly, the work by leaders and pastors in Western Europe requires patience to crack through the irreligious cultures of places such as Belgium and Portugal. Rarely do they encounter people ready to accept any form of spirituality. It requires a determined spirit.
In the U.S., determination is still required. In a culture obsessed with instant-everything, fervency seems to be something best left to the Puritans of yesteryear. But someone changed by the gospel learns to persist. Transformation brings about a steadiness that eventually results in the internal fruit of maturity and the external fruit of new disciples.
A transformed life is marked by determined diligence.
Show them the proper perspective. How you view life is how you will carry out ministry. Where verse 11 deals with persisting in service, verse 12 carries the impact of moving through difficulties. “Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer.” These three statements all require the initiation of faith in our lives.
True gospel transformation requires faith. We believe that, through faith in God’s grace, one becomes a disciple of Christ. But faith does not have its ending point at the moment of conversion. Faith is required to please God (Hebrews 11:6). It is through the lens of faith that believers should see the work of God and their own lives. Knowing that we are often bruised by life, the perspective of faith allows us to see beyond present circumstances. In showing believers the life of faith, it must not only be painted as a hope for things to come in eternity. Faith is an active portion of how we view the current condition of life. It is the recognition within the community that life is difficult, but not impossible.
Living out transformation requires the perspective that “my” strength and ingenuity will never be sufficient. They were not sufficient to secure my soul for eternity, and they will not be able to get me through the years of this life. Faith is being convinced that God is there and He is for us. Maintaining a perspective of faith will keep believers in a state of reliance on Christ, and it is in this active reliance that living out our transformation is possible.
A transformed life is marked by a perspective of faith.
Keep believers in community. The bulk of Romans 12 deals with how believers relate to one another. From verses 13-20, a model is given to us for remaining close to one another. The language of the passage points to the needs we have: sharing, hospitality, blessing, weeping, peace, hunger, thirst. Meeting these needs for one another is where transformation shows itself.
But for needs to be met, community must be valued. I live in a place called a community. It has geographic boundaries and a name. But I can promise you that we are not all in community with one another. The citizens of my community argue about how tax money is to be spent, in what order the roads should receive repair and where the next school should be built. We are a community that is not often in community with one another.
But as a leader of believers, you have a unique opportunity. It is your place to bring together those who are individually transformed by the gospel, so they may share their lives. Though people show an inherent desire to be in community, they will often substitute proximity for relationships. In order to weep with someone (v. 15), you have to be more than physically near them. We must pursue transformation in order to take on the heart of Christ, who wept at the tomb of a friend. Community is the place that catalyzes change.
A transformed life is marked by living in community with believers.
Model for them a life worthy of the gospel. The final verse of the chapter reads, “Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (v. 21). Having served small, mid-sized and large churches, I can sympathize with you that evil seems to hang around churches. In fact, it seems to have a particular fondness for church leaders. Evil tempts us, goads us and mocks us. And in moments of weakness, we come close to throwing our hands up and walking away. But we do not, because Christ has done too much on our behalf.
The very nature we have been given is that of righteousness. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul taught that we had been given the ministry reconciliation because God “made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Our lives—both lived and in leading—should show that we are more interested in displaying Christ’s righteousness than gaining a transitory victory over someone’s ill will toward us. We are guaranteed righteousness, so don’t waste your life messing about with sin.
We are taught, “For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). The issue of “Can I be righteous?” is to be removed from the minds of the believers. Instead, our thought each day can be, “How will Christ’s righteousness be displayed in me?”
A transformed life is marked by righteousness.
The marks of a transformed life are merely the signs of Christ’s presence in us. They are the witness of the Spirit’s work in our lives. When we see these marks, it is because God keeps His covenant to conform us to the image of His Son. It is the place to which many of us should return in how we lead the church.
It is a great privilege to walk in the midst of those given new life in Christ and see God’s constant work in their lives. As we lead the believers and churches entrusted into our care, let’s do so with the mindset that God is not hoping to initiate transformation, but that He has guaranteed it for His people. Leading people from keeping rules to enjoying Christ will once again deliver them toward His transformation.