I know I am supposed to change, but how?

Have you ever got to the point in your Christian walk where you realise that what you are experiencing seems so far away from what the Bible implies we ought to? We know we are supposed to change, but how?

I need to stress that what I say here is only going to be of help if you truly are a follower of Christ Jesus. If you have not been saved by grace alone through faith alone, even if you say you believe in Jesus, you will not be able to change because you will actually have rejected Jesus. If you come to Jesus any other way than as an empty handed sinner who knows he or she needs to be saved and that that salvation comes only through the cross of Christ, then you will not have been saved at all. Jesus says that many will call upon him at the end saying even that they spoke about him often to others and yet he says he will not acknowledge them except as evil doers (Matthew 7:21-23). So if you are in that category you need first to go to the Lord and acknowledge you have been wrong and seek his grace to enable you to see him and the gospel rightly.

But for those who know that they have come to the Lord by his grace, I begin by asking how it is that we don’t change. Or rather what things, in and of themselves, are not agents of change and, if used as such, will fail. The first ought to be obvious, but it insinuates itself into our approach to change in subtle and hard to spot ways. And it is this; I cannot change by greater exertions of my own will and powers. There is still an element of that thinking in all of us, even now. And yet, says Chester, we ought to know that won’t work because Colossians 2:20-23 indicates that rules and self-imposed restraint never works.[1]

There are so many ways in which our performance, how I am doing or not doing enters into our thinking. But Paul tells us that we did not receive the Spirit by our works but by faith. And he warns against trying to begin by way of the Spirit but “finish by means of the flesh.” In other words trying to make our Christian walk as being about our performance draws us away from the Gospel. When Paul contrasts walking by the Spirit and by the flesh he is talking to converted men and women. There is a way that the Christian can walk after the flesh, in his or her own strength, and that way will not lead to holiness but to sin. It seems to me that is the force of Paul’s warning. The Galatians were being tempted towards law keeping, towards trusting in their own actions and this, Paul says, only ever leads to sin and slavery. Thus the more that we try and defeat our sin by way of our performance the more we are likely to fail and to be drawn into that very sin. Paul says elsewhere that when he saw the command against coveting the result was that he coveted. All the command did was give sin an opportunity. The command drew attention to sin and in the sinful heart of man it stirred a desire for that very sin.

So then, what this amounts to is that efforts to change that are grounded in my own actions, in my performance, will fail. And that is why grace is so important to grasp. And the answer then is, just as the AA folk have it, if I am powerless then I need to rest in a power that is more powerful than I am and more powerful than my sin. And that is the power of God in Christ Jesus. So Paul says, in Galatians 5:16-17, So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, so you are not free to carry out your good intentions.” There will be this conflict. If you are not experiencing inner conflict you may need to ask if there is a work of the Spirit in your life because Paul assumes the conflict will be there. But if you do feel the conflict then you need not feel that because of that you must be a poor Christian. The conflict will be part of the Christian life until we are taken up in glory. “When you feel this conflict, go with the Spirit.”[7] When we do this we are accessing the very same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20).

I have begun to read William Gurnall’s monumental work on the armour of God.[8] He has been explicating Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” And here, of course, is that very thing that I mentioned earlier that if sin is more powerful than I am (and it is in my natural self) then I need a power greater than me and greater than it. And what we have here is a call to stand firm in the “power of his might”. That is “exert strength”. It is a call to make use of the strength that is available to us. Deploy this mighty power. The word suggests that this power is there for us to be used. This is an open invitation. And it is in the might of his power. “For that is the apostle’s drift, as to beat us off from leaning on our own strength, so to encourage the Christian to make use of God’s almighty power, as freely as if it were his own, whenever assaulted by Satan in any kind.”[9]

But, as Gurnall notes, a sword left in its scabbard is of no use whatsoever in the fight. It is not that there is a deficiency in the sword itself. The deficiency lies in the failure of the soldier to use it when he might. And it is an act of faith that rests in the strength of God. It is an act of one who sees that the Lord is indeed Almighty and trusts that strength even when the odds look bad.

Spurgeon, speaking of Psalm 38:21 “Do not abandon me, O Lord…” (NLT), says, "Frequently we pray that God would not forsake us in the hour of trial and temptation, but we too much forget that we have need to use this prayer at all times. There is no moment of this life, however holy, in which we can do without His constant upholding."[10] This is an important point. I betray a form of self-righteousness when I cruise along when things seem fine without a thought to God needing to uphold me. If my only cry to God for his upholding comes in times of struggle then I am failing to acknowledge my need of him in all things. This is a profound thought. It reinforces the point that we are meant to live in dependence on him for all things. If we remembered this then the likelihood is that the change that God enables in us will be that much more radical.

And I also need to see that if I am truly his then the Lord will bring me into his victory. Tim Chester – as he grows older he starts to look like his birth father. He can’t help it and he can’t make himself so. It is part of his DNA.[11] We are now wired that way to grow like Jesus. It is within us. Philippians 2:13 “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.”

In 1 John 3:9 it says that the one born of God “cannot go on sinning…” This looks scary at first, but as I read it in Chester’s book, I began to wonder if it is not of immense hope (as Chester suggests). It may function as an absolute promise that God will overcome my sin because the person who is born of him “cannot go on sinning…” God will not permit it to be so. In fact Chester confirms this is his view when he says, “…change is in my DNA. John says the end of the change process is certain: I will be like him when I see him as he is…That means change is not only possible, it’s inevitable!”[12]

Faith and repentance is our part (although this is also the gift of God). We come in by faith and repentance and we stay in and grow by the same means. Sanctification, like justification, is by faith and rests on our faith-union with Christ.[13] In other words, when we say that we do good things out of gratitude for what God has done for us we are stating a half-truth that, if taken as the whole, becomes a mistaken belief. God’s grace in us, as we abide in Christ, spurs us on to do the good deeds he has prepared for us to do. And above all these we must continue to look to Christ and meditate on his perfections.

[1] Tim Chester, You Can Change: God’s transforming power for our sinful behaviour & negative emotions (Nottingham: IVP, 2008), 47.

[2] Chester, You Can Change, 48.

[3] Chester, You Can Change, 50.

[4] Chester, You Can Change, 50.

[5] Chester, You Can Change, 50.

[6] Cited in Chester, You Can Change, 52.

[7] Chester, You Can Change, 59.

[8] William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (1864. rep. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989).

[9] Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, 25.

[10] C. H. Spugeon, Morning and Evening: Daily Readings (McLean, Vir.: MacDonald [undated]), 292.

[11] Chester, You Can Change, 61.

[12] Chester, You Can Change, 62.

[13] Chester, You Can Change, 64.


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