You might want to get another sip of coffee before venturing with me into this post! If you’re brave enough, I am inviting you to think deeply about matters that have been the object of far too much superficial reflection. Far too many believers only think about (and articulate) their faith through clichés about “accepting Jesus into their hearts.” Not surprisingly, our shared life in Christ is not what it could be when our vocabulary for it is not much more than clichés. If we hope to live differently, we’ll need to think more deeply about spiritual transformation. With this goal, (easily facilitated in Scripture) I invite you to join with me. (Did you sip that coffee yet?)
Salvation: one gift, but ….
God’s gift of salvation must always be understood (with deep gratitude) as one completed act of a loving God for undeserving, helpless, powerless, ungodly sinners who are His enemies (Romans 5). Yet salvation is experienced sequentially in three dimensions (Already, In between and Not yet).
The apostle actually explained our salvation as one gift of five completed divine actions for sinners (who are recipients of each, as we did not and could not participate in any of them). What did God do for us?
1. Foreknew: (us) (Προεγνω)
2. Predestined: (us) (Προωρισεν)
3. Called: (us) (Εκαλεσεν)
4. Justified: (us) (Εδικαιωσεν)
5. Glorified: (us) (εδοξασεν)
This one-time divine gift (Romans 8:29-30) permanently united us to God in Christ but is experienced sequentially in time. It’s completely based on a redemption-accomplished by God through Christ but produces in us (in this life) an eager expectation of the final redemption of our bodies (Romans 8; Philippians 1:6; 3:20-21).
The three dimensions of “Already, In between and Not yet” are real – so real that we groan inwardly as we wait for completion. Yet we must be careful not to divide what God has united because understood together, they help us when (in this “not yet”) we wait and groan — to do this with patience and hope (Romans 8).
We are undeserving recipients of everything but we’re called to be active participants during the “not yet.” As we “continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” even this must be done (yes, can only be done) based on the fact that, “it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). God is restoring His image in us by His Spirit (II Corinthians 3:18).
Restoration of glory:
The image of God is the starting point for how we think about humanity. It’s the shared reality of all people without exception or distinction. God singled out humans when He said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” ”So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27; James 3:9).
At the beginning, God “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Humans (by God’s intention) had a very good and noble beginning (and, we intuitively know it). But those intended for greatness have fallen. Sin is a tragic and culpable falling short of this glory – “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).
On this account, we must consider transformation as return to glory.
▪ A glory we had at the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27).
▪ A glory we fell from in disobedience (Romans 3:23; 5:12; James 3:9).
▪ A glory being restored in us (through God’s gift of salvation and the indwelling Spirit (Rom. 6:23: II Cor. 3:18)
▪ A glory fully restored (despite our present suffering, Romans 8:18; Revelation 21:1-5).
The wide lens on transformation:
A focus that has recently captured evangelical vision is transformation or change via cultural and political agents. On this note, we must exercise a degree of caution. Humans need more than social or cultural change, we need ontological transformation— i. e. change of “being” before “behavior”– and this only comes by God’s gift of spiritual regeneration.
God said, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). We need a recreation or new creation by the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) for the restoring of the image of God in us.
We need the God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” “to make his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6). We need to be reconciled to God to become a “new creation” in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17). And “all this is from God” (II Corinthians 5:18).
From a Christian perspective, this work of God is foundational to any interest in cultural and political agents of change. I am not suggesting that an imposition of salvation on culture and politics. Nor am I suggesting that other kinds of goods can’t be offered unless the spiritual is included. But transformation of human existence (both individually and in community), from a Christian perspective must prioritize the ontological dimension (i. e. transformation of “being,” not just “behavior”).
External mechanisms of change like laws, customs, cultures and politics will not address the depth of the human problem. On a Christian view, these external pressures are necessary (even divinely ordained) but not adequate. So we insist that making external adjustments like putting the “right” party in political office or changing laws and policies will not address our deepest needs.
Looking through the wider lens, spiritual transformation includes a strong teleological focus (a hope and a future beyond the temporal world) (see: Titus 3:3-7; II Corinthians 4:16-18). The teleological dimension is God’s provision of hope and purpose — things that matter at some deep level to rational people.
A Christian understanding of influences like culture and politics must be shaped by a hope centered on God’s redemptive work in Christ. It would an exercise in betrayal for the believer to think of “hope and change” in purely temporal terms. Christian thinking and living simply cannot happen (as intended) apart from the divine telos to which history is directed.
Transformation in community
On another level, humans are social beings by divine creation. We are not meant to be alone (and we know it). Our lives depend on others and we were designed to flourish in community. But human relationships are the source of some of our deepest problems. Maintaining peace is a perplexing and painful project on almost every level. Although we still feel innate endorsement that it’s not good to be alone, it’s complicated, difficult and sometimes even dangerous to be together.
God’s answer for our social and community needs is the Church. The work of Christ on earth cannot be thought of apart from the Church. He’s the one who said, “I will build my Church” (Matthew 16:18). Those who are deeply concerned about transformation must apply their thoughts and concerns to the Church.
The Church (as God’s new community) is not merely an organization but an organism. In some ontologically organic way, each believer in Christ (upon faith) is immersed into a living community or body of believers to form God’s new society.
Each local Church is made up of people who have experienced (and are experiencing) ontological transformation — “though outwardly perishing, yet inwardly being renewed day by day” — with a shared teleological vision — as “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:16-18).
Should these communities (local Churches) be exemplars of the kind of ideal toward which human flourishing happens at its best? Sound a little too idealistic?
We know that this side of God’s new world (Revelation 21:1-5), we will not experience utopia. Churches (i.e. Church members) have to “work hard to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). Part of the reason for this is the fact that spiritual change is not subtraction of the flesh but addition of the Spirit. The flesh is not eradicated but God gives the Holy Spirit – “whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:6-7).
We are told to “walk by the Spirit” if we desire to “not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The Spirit breaks the power/mastery of what the hymn writer called “cancelled sin.” Yet the conflict remains— “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other” (Galatians 5.16-17).
In Galatians 5:15-16, there is an interesting connection between community relationships (at their worse) and walking by the Spirit as the solution. “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, (solution) walk by the Spirit, and you will not…”
A direct connection is made in these verses between protecting relationships from destruction (bite, devour, destroy: metaphors from the animal kingdom) and the role of the Holy Spirit. To avoid destructive relationship, we must,
- v.16 –walk by the Spirit;
- v.18 – be led by the Spirit;
- v.25a –live by the Spirit;
- v. 25b – keep in step with the Spirit
Galatians 5:16 says, “so I say”, (or ςέ “but I say”). Here is my advice.” Or, “Here is the remedy for the situation described in v. 15.” (Phillips). To protect Christian community (relationships) from destruction, each member must “live orwalk by the Spirit.”
What kind of community is possible (and should be expected) when ontologically changed believers are immersed by one Spirit into organic life together? Individual and community life of this kind (Christian marriages, families and local Churches) among those who are walking by the Spirit (being kept continuously filled by the Spirit) will be distinguished by pervasive practice of the fruit of the Spirit.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)
“Against these qualities no law is needed.” The external agent of change is unnecessary where the internal work of the Spirit is active. Imagine any relationship where these qualities are flourishing. Each of these qualities (fruit) also appears as a command in the NT reminding us that we are not passive recipients of the activity of God. Unworthy recipients? Yes! But not passive recipients (see: Philippians 2:12-13).
What should we expect in view of such amazing grace?