A Brief Theology of How People Change

In my previous blog post I noted that I was writing a paper for school on how people change. For what it’s worth, I’ll go ahead and post it below for you perusal. Feedback is certainly welcome. It’s not perfect, but it is complete!

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In his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus instructs his disciples on how renewal comes to a person’s life. He tells Nicodemus that he will be “lifted up,” and that the life of the age to come will invade the present life of anyone who looks to him in faith.[1] Nevertheless, while Christians believe God can change lives, they still struggle to grasp how this takes place. Without intending to be comprehensive, in what follows I will briefly sketch what the Bible teaches regarding how people change.

In short, biblical change is a process, beginning with regeneration. Following this supernatural act, transformation involves attending to the means of grace (prayer, Scripture, and sacraments), as well as ongoing repentance, disciplined reflection, redemptive relationships, understanding one’s new identity in Christ, and what a number of new writers refer to as “rehabituation.”

First, change begins with regeneration. Regeneration refers to the supernatural work of God, whereby he grants spiritual life to spiritually dead sinners (Ezek. 36:25-26; Eph. 2:1-3). In this act God renovates the heart—“the core of a person’s being, by implanting a new principle of desire, purpose, and action.”[2] Such a heart renovation is necessitated by the fact that, according to the Bible, the human heart is desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9), full of evil (Mk. 7:21-23), loves darkness rather than light (Jn. 3:19), does not seek God (Rom. 3:10-12), is a slave to sin (Jn. 8:34; Rom. 6:16-20), cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14), and cannot submit to God (Rom. 8:9).[3] Clearly, human beings need more than simply self-improvement; what is needed is resurrection life. Thankfully, this is exactly what God promises to give—resurrection life by virtue of our union with Christ.[4] God’s work of regeneration, then, is what brings desire for change, upending our fallen notions of happiness, reordering our loves so that we love him supremely and love everything else properly.[5]

Second, as one embarks on a journey of obedience, one must avail themselves to the “means of grace.” Simply stated, the means of grace are those spiritual “resources” God gives to his people to assist them in their walk with him.[6] Traditionally, the means of grace are identified as God’s Word, prayer, and the sacraments, but can also encompass “providences,” that is, various trials and hardships that come into one’s life.[7] As we sit under God’s Word in church and digest it in our personal lives, God remakes us in his Son’s image. As we speak to him in prayer, voicing our supplications and laments, we grow in closer communion with him. As we experience the confirmation of his promises made to us in the sacraments, our consciousness of salvation is strengthened, and we enjoy a preview of the supper we long to celebrate with our risen King (Isa. 25:6-9).[8] These are formative and shaping moments in our earthly pilgrimage.[9]

In addition to the means of grace enumerated above, several other practices are crucial for effecting change in a believer’s life. While not often mentioned, disciplined reflection is necessary if one is to enjoy transformation. By “disciplined,” I mean that one must discipline himself/herself to set aside time for reflection. By “reflection” I mean self-examination. Far from being an exercise in narcissistic navel-gazing, self-knowledge is a prerequisite for spiritual growth.[10] We must know ourselves well enough to be able to trace our acts of disobedience back to the wrong thinking patterns that gave birth to the sinful action in the first place. This enables us to break free from the idols that grip our hearts.

Sin, Richard Lovelace noted, is rooted in “an organic network of compulsive attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors deeply rooted in our alienation from God.”[11] Sustained reflection is needed for growth because we must learn why we do what we do and say what we say. We must look our sin squarely in the face and confess the heart attitudes behind them to God. Sadly, many Christians prefer to hide, remaining fiercely committed to self-protection. God, however, invites us to “come out of hiding.” “He loves us,” Stephen Seamands writes, “naked, vulnerable and fragile as we are.”[12] God’s love must be received in an “undefended state—in the vulnerability of a ‘Just as I Am’ encounter.”[13] We need to see our sin in all its horror, ugliness, and reprehensibility, and then feel Jesus place both hands on the side of our head, look us in the eyes, and say, “I forgive you, I don’t reject you, I love you, I want you.” This kind of “stubborn love” brings lasting change: “When we are truly known, particularly in the darkness and shadows of our lives, by a love which does not reject, we are cemented to God.”[14] Sustained reflection that takes us into the dark places in our hearts, causing us to see ourselves for who we really are, is absolutely essential to our growth.

Next, biblical transformation involves redemptive relationships. By “redemptive relationships” I am referring broadly to the role of the church, as well as small groups or accountability groups. In contrast to the rife individualism in our culture, the Bible presents a robust ecclesiology. God’s covenant promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 establishes the fact that God’s design is to have an international body of believers who willingly, lovingly, and joyfully submit to Jesus as Lord.[15] God’s agenda, therefore, is for a person’s discipleship to take place in a community of believers. This means that the biblical portrait of discipleship is at odds with any notion that might suggest that one’s spirituality is not linked to the visible church.[16] The New Testament epistles make plain that one’s union with Christ is thoroughly ecclesiological in nature.[17]

While this may sound burdensome to contemporary believers, God’s purpose is that his people come alongside one another to bear one another’s burdens, encourage each other, and hold each other accountable—in short, become change agents in each other’s lives.[18] No wonder, then, that Proverbs 18:1 says, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.” The ancient sage’s advice makes sense because we need others. We resist other people getting into the details of our lives, viewing them as nosy. In the context of a genuinely loving relationship, however, our hearts are softened, and knowledge of the other person’s care for us makes their unpleasant comments acceptable.[19] In sum, relationships play an integral role in our sanctification because it is only in the context of relationships that we experience the joy of being known, forgiven, and still wanted.[20]

Another important element in the ongoing change of a believer is repentance. In announcing the arrival of his kingdom, Jesus called people to repent (Mark 1:14-15), and as Martin Luther stated in his ninety-five theses, when Jesus uttered these words, “he willed the whole life of the faithful to be an act of repentance.”[21] Although a believer’s sins have been completely forgiven when he or she initially turned away from their sins and trusted in Christ (Eph. 1:7), the Bible makes clear that believers continue to sin (1 Jn. 1:8). Nevertheless, the Bible also discloses that a believer is one who hates and makes war on their residual sin (Rom. 7:15-16, 24; 8:13; 1 Jn. 3:9). For these reasons, ongoing repentance is a key component in a believer’s continual growth. In short, repentance involves, 1) a sense of shame, 2) humility, and 3) sorrow and regret.[22]

In ongoing repentance a believer is not “re-justified,” but rather experiences cleansing and washing. Naming specific sinful actions and attitudes and agreeing with God that they are wrong is a powerful—and painful!—experience, but one that brings a great sense of release. The action evidences a broken will, which in turn opens the floodgates of heaven, and allows one to enjoy God’s smile and grace.[23]

Another central element involved in transforming a believer’s life is the issue of one’s identity. The Good News is so good because it declares that a believer is no longer identified by his or her past sins, but is instead defined by what Christ accomplished. In Paul’s words, our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). His crucifixion is our crucifixion (Gal. 2:20), his death is our death (Rom. 6:8; Col. 3:3), his resurrection is our resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). Our identity is framed by our union with Christ.[24]

For this reason, Ivor Davidson rightly notes that Paul’s declaration, “You are not your own” (1 Cor. 6:19), “is a declaration not of infringement but of emancipation.”[25] Thus, each day a believer must fill his or her mind with gospel realities: You are accepted, you are delivered, you are not alone, you have authority.[26] Revel in the truths found in Hebrews 2:11, Ephesians 2:6, and Colossians 3:1, highlighting the fact that it is indicatives and not subjunctives that describe our standing before God.[27]

Finally, in the process of changing, a believer should expect difficulty. After all, believers are in a spiritual battle. In light of this, recent writers have emphasized the importance of “rehabitutation.”[28] Simply put, the word refers to the process of change within a believer. While God is able to bring dramatic change in a moment, more often than not God brings about change gradually. Our habits and loves are disordered, and the process of sanctification involves retraining our habits, loves, and desires—in short, “rehabituation.” Overcoming sinful actions, therefore, “is more like a weightwatchers program than listening to books on tape.”[29]

Taken together, living out the elements listed above, while daunting, can effectuate transformation in a believer’s life. God will use these means and activities to restore his image in us as well as cultivate Christ’s character in us.[30]

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[1] See further Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Lifting Up the Son of Man and God’s Love for the World: John 3:16 in Its Historical, Literary, and Theological Contexts,” in Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century. Essays in Honor of D. A. Carson on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, eds. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Robert W. Yarbrough (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 151.

[2] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christians Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 157. While I will not defend it here, Scripture teaches that regeneration is monergistic and precedes faith. See, e.g., Matthew M. Barrett, “The Scriptural Affirmation of Monergism,” in Whomever He Wills: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy, eds. Matthew M. Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles (Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2013), 120-187. See esp. 147-187, as well as Mark A. Snoeberger, “The Logical Priority of Regeneration to Saving Faith in a Theological Ordo Salutis,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 7 (Fall 2002): 49-93.

[3] While Christians affirm the reality of the noetic effects of sin (i.e., that the fall effects the way we think), we also believe that because human beings are created in the image of God, he has endowed us with the ability to think, reason, communicate, and comprehend what is written or spoken. See, e.g., John Bolt, “Sola Scriptura as an Evangelical Theological Method?” in Reforming or Conforming? Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church, eds. Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald N. Gleason (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 62-92. Nevertheless we also believe that “Sin creates a moral deficiency within us by which we are indisposed to truth” (R. C. Sproul, John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 51).

[4] See further Lane G. Tipton, “Union with Christ and Justification,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan for Us in Justification, ed. K. Scott Oliphant (Ross-shire: Great Britain, 2007), 23-49.

[5] David K. Naugle, Reordered Love, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 1-29.

[6] The word “resources” is taken from John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the LORD: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2006), 261.

[7] See, e.g., Sinclair Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1988), 71-72. The role of the church in sanctification will be discussed later in the paper.

[8] Brandon C. Jones, Waters of Promise: Finding Meaning in Believer Baptism (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2012), 7, 135; Russell Moore, “Baptist View: Christ’s Presence as Memorial,” in Understanding Four Views on the Lord’s Supper, eds. John H. Armstrong and Paul E. Engle (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 30-44

[9] Debra Dean Murphy, “Worship as Catechesis: Knowledge, Desire, and Formation,” Theology Today 58:3 (2001): 321-332.

 [10] Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1980), 82.

 [11] Ibid., 88.

[12] Stephen Seamands, Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2005), 128.

[13] David G. Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 24.

[14] C. Frederick Barbee & Paul F. M. Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 57. The phrase “stubborn love” comes from David Hansen, The Power of Loving Your Church: Leading through Acceptance and Grace (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998), 55. In context, Hansen is explaining the meaning of the Hebrew word hesed.

[15] Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology 23 (Downers Grove: IVP, 2007), 83-84.

[16] The most recent statistics suggest that this is what many Americans believe. See, e.g., “Among Unchurched Americans,” Facts & Trends 63:2 (Spring 2017): 15.

[17] Brannon Ellis, “Covenantal Union and Communion: Union with Christ as the Covenant of Grace,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 92.

[18] David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love: Counsel in Community (Winston-Salem, NC: Punch Press, 2005), 99.

[19] Timothy and Kathy Keller, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms (New York: Viking, 2015), 349.

[20] Sharon A. Hersh, The Last Addiction: Why Self-Help Is Not Enough (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2008), 33.

[21] Martin Luther, “The Ninety-Five Theses,” in Documents of the Christian Church, eds. Henry Bettenson & Chris Maunder, new ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 206.

[22] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2013), 68.

[23] On what a broken will looks like, see Nancy Leigh DeMoss, Brokenness: The Heart God Revives (Chicago: Moody, 2005), 51.

[24] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 63.

[25] Ivor J. Davidson, “Gospel Holiness: Some Dogmatic Reflections,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 210.

[26] Richard Lovelace calls these the four platforms Christians must stand on. See his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 210.

[27] Davidson, “Gospel Holiness,” 202.

[28] See, e.g., James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2016), 53-54; Steven L. Porter, “The Gradual Nature of Sanctification: Σάρξ as Habituated, Relational Resistance to the Spirit,” Themelios 39:3 (2014): 470-483.

[29] Smith, You Are What You Love, 65.

[30] Language borrowed from Derek Tidball, “Holiness: Restoring God’s Image: Colossians 3:5-17,” in Sanctification: Explorations in Theology and Practice, ed. Kelly M. Kapic (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2014), 26, 31.

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