If I have the Gospel, what else do I need in order to change? This was a question that was placed on our Member’s Forum. It is a good question that every Christian should spend some time considering if they want to mature in their sanctification.
The question was framed as though the Gospel, as an independent entity, is all we need to change. This would make the Gospel into some sort of mystical change agent that does not require reciprocal, communal engagement.
The Gospel is powerful enough to change any person, but how you think about and implement the Gospel into your life will determine the level of transformation you experience from it.
It may be helpful if you thought about the Gospel like you would think about a scalpel. A scalpel can be a powerful tool if used properly. A scalpel sitting on a tray will do nothing for you. What would make the scalpel powerful, surgical, and transformative is how it is used.
If the Gospel was transformative without reciprocal, communal engagement, then anyone who hears about it could be transformed, but we know that is not the case. There are millions of people who have heard about the Gospel, but are unaffected by it.
Then there is another group of people who have heard about the Gospel and want to be changed by it, but they do not know how to benefit from the Gospel’s power. They love it, but they are not being transformed.
To own and wield a scalpel will not necessarily bring the change you hope for your life. Quite the contrary; the wrong use of a scalpel could bring devastating harm to you.
This is why you and I need the Gospel plus a proper way of engaging it in order to be changed by it. This is where each of us will have to make a decision about how we think about and implement the Gospel into our lives. To know it is not enough.
Two themes that work
One of the benefits of counseling is you have the privilege of meeting a broad swath of people in the LORD’s church. We do not pick and choose our counseling friends, which is great because of the eclectic-ness of the folks who come to us for help.
Most of them come to us because there is something going wrong in their lives or their relationships and they want to change. All of them have tried different things that may have worked to some degree, but the change they desired was incomplete or not sufficient.
After nearly two decades of interacting with thousands of people who are looking for help, I began to see common themes about what works and what does not work. The graphic below illustrates the two most common themes that can lead to true transformation.
The two main themes are method and commitment. These are the two essential component parts that will make the Gospel transformative. Without a commitment to change and a helpful method for change, then the Gospel will be like an unused or misused scalpel.
In this piece I am going to interact with the method of change rather than a person’s commitment to change. I will not interact with all of the methods I have seen, but only a sampling that are listed in the graphic, beginning with the least desirable to most desirable. (This is a three-part series. Part one was, When It Comes to Soul Care, Are You a Fire-Fighter or a Life Changer?)
The isolating effect of books
The Christian church seemingly cannot get enough of books. No doubt Gutenberg did us a favor by inventing the printing press because the church has been blessed exponentially by helpful writers who enjoy writing about God and life.
The upside to books is they have been a valuable means of grace to millions of people. Everybody has a story about a nugget, a principle, or a concept they gleaned from a book and how it was meaningful to their lives.
The past several years I have taken advantage of this means of grace by writing practical articles that, according to our daily feedback, have been a source of encouragement and help to many people.
Because we live in a fallen world, all good things can be turned into bad things. Books are no exception. Besides the obvious problem with heretical writers, there is another problem with books that is just as detrimental to a person’s sanctification.
Books have an isolating effect that creates limitations in how a person can change. This, of course, is one of the enticing features about a book; a person does not have to be exposed to the risks of community. Books are safe.
The problem is this can create a hermetically sealed environment that disallows fresh and more objective eyes to examine the person who wants to change. Every person I have ever counseled has read a book, if not dozens, on the very thing that has them stuck. And they are still stuck.
The Bible does not make much of books as a means of change. The writers of the New Testament do make much of engaged, reciprocal, disciple-making communities.
There is a world of difference between having an author talk about problems that relate to you and having a person spend time with you, drawing you out by unpacking your thoughts and life through conversation and observation.
Isolated book readers may be encouraged and they may be helped to a degree, but only life on life contexts will be able to know you the way you need to be known. Community (koinonia) is not safe.
Who you fooling?
People generally do not pursue life on life relationships because they do not want to be critiqued or exposed, even by people who care for them. Recently one of my Distance Education students said the following:
You asked me to ask other people to grade my tongue. What really surprised me is it was not as hard as I would have thought to ask people this (of course, I chose people I trust, who love me). The overwhelming response of everyone I asked and everyone I told about the assignment was,
“How did you ever get the courage to do that? I could never ask a person that!”
I was able to explain to my husband, mother-in-law, and a few friends that I am increasingly aware I do not see myself clearly. If I am serious about wanting to be like Christ, I am going to need tons of help.
I also explained how the work of Christ on my behalf proves I am a horrible sinner; besides, everyone in the room knows I am a huge sinner. Who do I think I am fooling? Do I want to live in my delusions of self-righteousness or do I want to look like Jesus?
What she wrote is profound. There is no possible way for a book to do this for her. A book can help. It can point her in the right direction. But it will never be able to seal the deal, by pushing her into full-on Gospel engagement.
The upside to a book is it is less dangerous than interacting with humanoids, which is what her friends were communicating by saying they could never do what she did. Though what she did was not safe, she did give us clues as to why she did it.
- I am increasingly aware I do not see myself clearly.
- If I am serious about wanting to be like Christ, I am going to need tons of help.
- I also explained how the work of Christ on my behalf proves I am a horrible sinner; besides, everyone in the room knows I am a huge sinner.
- Who do I think I am fooling?
- Do I want to live in my delusions of self-righteousness or do I want to look like Jesus?
Her five points cannot be over-emphasized. I am going to take each one of them and compare the community she sought out versus the isolating effect a book can provide.
- Self-deception – Because none of us can see ourselves clearly, then how we read a book will be affected by the very sin patterns that we are trying to overcome. An in-depth study of presuppositional apologetics would be helpful to fully understand this danger. Looking through a stained window will affect what you see and how you think about what you see.
- Communal affection – Books will not give you tons of help, which is why her point about community is powerfully made. Tons of help means real, live, breathing people who can engage her in all the contexts of her life, rather than her sitting in a hermetically sealed room reading a book.
- Being real – A book does not know you the way others can possibly know you. It can talk about problems that you relate to, but it cannot possibly talk about the real you, the person your close friends know.
- Knowing me – This is an interesting question that supplies its own answer: we do not fool those who know us. But herein lies the problem: do we really want to be known or would we rather take the more difficult, but safer approach of page turning?
- Self-righteousness – This statement is getting a little deeper into the problem she is unmasking. There is a part of us that does not want to be found out for who we really are. My DE student has decided to come out of her self-sealed stupor by engaging her community.
It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. – Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets, P. 3.
Books, like programs and Bible studies, have an important place in the Christian community. They are some of the contexts that build the foundations of our lives. I have no clue how many books I have read in my life or how many Bible studies I have attended.
I doubt there has ever been a book that I have not found some benefit, even heretical books. As they say, “Pick out the bones and eat the meat.” We all have done this. We do not want to throw out our books with the bath water. The real question for us is whether we are willing to put ourselves in contexts that will expose us for who we really are.
- How much do you want to change?
- How desperate are you for change?
Even the Bible can be an ineffective tool if we do not allow it to unpack us in the context of community. This is why the LORD told Philip to go and talk to the Ethiopian. He was reading from the book of Isaiah, but he could not understand what he was reading (Acts 8:26-32). He needed community to help him understand the Bible.
Some of the most fanatical lovers of the Bible were completely distorted by the Bible. These were the Pharisees. Because they would not allow competent outsiders to speak into their lives, not even the Bible could save them from destruction (Matthew 23:1-39).
An excellent way for a Bible lover to be helped is for him to set aside his pride, step outside of his comfort zone, and seek help from someone who is able to speak into his life. Go Nick!!
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night… – John 3:1-2 (ESV)
Even being blessed with superior intelligence and an insatiable appetite for the Bible will not keep you from dysfunction.
I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. – Philippians 3:4-6 (ESV)
There are over 31 one another passages in the New Testament. Paul wrote most of them. He valued community and was relentless in motivating his friends to value it by pursuing it (Matthew 6:21). As my DE student said, “Who do I think I am fooling? Do I want to live in my delusions of self-righteousness or do I want to look like Jesus?”
In this series