I don’t recall hearing the word “transformation” very much during my years of training for ministry or during my early years in ministry (1979-1989). We spoke and wrote more about spiritual growth and maturity. We tended to use theological words like regeneration and sanctification. We focused on what it meant to be a new creation in Christ and taught about putting on the new man.
If we taught Romans 12:3, of course, we addressed the call to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” If we taught II Corinthians 3:18, we explained spiritual transformation as the ministry of the Spirit for those who, “beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
In the last couple of decades, however, the term transformation became trendy for sermon and book titles, as well as, retreat and conference themes. It’s obviously a good and necessary word because we certainly need nothing short of total transformation.
But how should we think about transformation? Asked differently, how does change occur? In other settings, we speak of a beautiful renovation of an old house as an amazing transformation. “You transformed this place!” we say to those who did the work. But what about transformation of people?
What provisions has God made for transforming lives and societies?
Certainly there are social, cultural and political agents of change ordained by God for the common good. These are His gifts of common grace. Parents and authorities are two of the primary examples (Ephesians 6:1; Romans 13:1-4). We need laws and law enforcement to protect us. We also need mentors to teach us and model for us. But the human need is far deeper than social or cultural change. Our nature itself must change.
We need a change of being or ontological transformation. This change only comes through God’s gift of spiritual regeneration. Rules and laws can be used to regulate behaviors but a change of being is nothing short of a creative act of God.
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 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, God created humans as social beings. 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 greatest satisfactions and our deepest problems. Maintaining peace in relationships is a perplexing and painful project on almost every level. Although we still innately feel that it’s not good to be alone, we know that 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” so that we will “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 (in demise) 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 or walk 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?