Although there are notable examples of progress in human history, it is largely one of war and destruction. The earth given to us to inhabit is on the edge of potential destruction at our own hands.
I am not referring to a theory of global warming but to the horrific potential of nuclear global destruction. If this sounds apocalyptic to you, I suggest a little research. There are currently enough strategically placed nuclear weapons to destroy every major city in the northern hemisphere.
It’s sadly notable that the most progressive century of human history (the 20th) was also the most violent. Human capacity for violence and evil appears to be limitless.
Human beings have an “empirically demonstrable bias toward evil. We are both complicitous in and molested by the evil of our race. We both discover evil and invent it; we both ratify and extend it…. By disposition, practice, and habit, human beings let loose a great, rolling momentum of evil across generations” (Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.).
All human beings live with an internal duality of good and evil. This is why our history is one of both heroism and terrorism. We are a people of love and war; of dignity and depravity. Heartwarming acts of benevolence and shockingly disturbing evil can come from the same person. Our nature itself is corrupted by an infectious and pervasive depravity.
But how can we name acts of evil and what solutions can we bring to the table?
Politics, Culture and Law as agents of change
Politics, culture and the role of law are agents of change that seem essential to our existence. These means offer limited solutions to some of our problems and offer the potential to promote human flourishing. But we have a deeper need that cannot be addressed through these agents of change.
Ontological and teleological change
These are big words but they’re important to understand. There is a need for a deeper level of change beyond the natural and external means provided through politics, culture and law.
We need an ontological change based on a teleological focus.
Ontological refers to a change to our being or nature. Teleological offers a future focus that provides hope to fuel change.
The teleological dimension is God’s provision of purpose and hope beyond the temporal world. It involves things that matter (at some level) to most rational people.
Laws, customs, culture and politics will not address the depth of the human problem. These external pressures are necessary (even divinely ordained) but not adequate. Making external adjustments by creating new laws or putting the “right” party in political office will not address our deepest needs.
Scripture reveals our need for an ontological transformation (a regeneration of our nature or a new heart). But we cannot produce this change in ourselves or in others (in fact, ontologically, our children inherited their problem from us, a corrupt nature). Parents cannot give their children a new nature. We ask them to consider matters of the “heart” but (in New Covenant terms) we cannot give them a new heart.
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).
Need for change
An example of this need for deeper (ontological) change would be King David’s confession of adultery. He acknowledged that his problem is far more than a matter of act and consequence. While confessing the wrong he had done, he said, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). He acknowledged a very long history with sin far beyond his current actions. He confessed an inborn condition.
We need a recreation or new creation by the renewing of God through His Spirit (Titus 3:5) with the aim of restoring the image of God in us (II Corinthians 3:18). We need the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” “to make his light shine in their hearts to give 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).This is ontological change.
We receive this change as a gift from God based in His mercy and unmerited love. “When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7).
This change is only a beginning but it comes with the “confidence that we will inherit eternal life” (Titus 3:7). This is the teleological focus that we desperately need in a world filled with suffering and death.
This also means that God’s gift in this life doesn’t erase or eradicate the fallen nature we battle against. Yet it changes the focal point for change from law to grace. “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:1-4).
So then the change we need is ontological (“being” not just behavior). Just as this change is a gift from God, so the ability to grow in conformity to God’s image is the work of God. It requires a life of humble dependence through diligent application of the means God has provided by His Spirit.
The question Paul raised to the believers in Galatia is fitting: “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3).
While we actively engage in all the means of change available to us, I invite you to turn to God to acknowledge your need for His gift and for His grace to be conformed to His image.