October 29, 2020

Let’s Discuss: Life Change


We need to talk.

Running Michael Spencer’s classic essay “When I Am Weak” yesterday raised questions that have been part of the discussion here on Internet Monk for many years. Certain theological terms have always sparked debate here about the nature of the Christian life:

  • Sanctification
  • Transformation
  • Life change
  • Spiritual growth
  • Faith or spiritual formation

Words like these and the concepts they represent are used in Christian circles to teach that followers of Jesus will show forth a different kind of life and experience a progressive growth in Christlikeness as they go on in the Christian life.

Our understanding and conversation gets notoriously tricky at this very point.

What is “change”? Who defines it? Is there a particular amount of change that indicates God’s work? If I fall below the minimum amount, what does that say about my relationship with Christ? How do I know that God is changing me or whether I’m simply growing up or making decisions on my own to change? What if I think I’ve fundamentally changed in a certain way and then go through a life experience that changes me back to the way I was before? Are there certain specific changes that are “required” and the same for everyone? How do I know if I’m really changing or just conforming to the expectations of those around me? Can I know for sure? And what are we to make of it when people who don’t follow Jesus experience change in their lives that is profound and good?

This is what Michael said in yesterday’s post:

I suppose some of us are getting better. For instance, my temper is better than it used to be. Of course, the reason my temper is better, is that in the process of cleaning up the mess I’ve made of my family with my temper, I’ve discovered about twenty other major character flaws that were growing, unchecked, in my personality. I’ve inventoried the havoc I’ve caused in this short life of mine, and it turns out “temper problem” is way too simple to describe the mess that is me.

On the other hand, Gordon MacDonald, I man I greatly admire, felt that we can know “How to Spot a Transformed Christian.” He listed twelve “outward signs of the inner reality.”

Metamorphosis_of_a_Butterfly_Merrian_1705According to him, a transformed Christian …

  1. Has an undiluted devotion to Jesus.
  2. Pursues a biblically informed view of the world.
  3. Is intentional and disciplined in seeking God’s direction in life.
  4. Worships, and has a spirit of continuous repentance.
  5. Builds healthy, reciprocal human relationships.
  6. Knows how to engage the larger world where faith is not necessarily understood.
  7. Is aware of personal “call” and unique competencies.
  8. Is merciful and generous.
  9. Appreciates that suffering is part of faithfulness to Jesus.
  10. Is eager and ready to express the content of his faith.
  11. Overflows with thankfulness.
  12. Has a passion for reconciliation.

But then again, Mark Galli, whom I also appreciate for his wisdom, wrote the following in a post we ran a couple of years ago, called The Evangelical Myth of “Transformation”:

I just keep on coming back to Luther’s truth that we are simultaneously justified and sinners. I keep on looking at my own life, and at church history, and I realize that when the Gospel talks about transformation, it can’t possibly mean an actual, literal change in this life of a dramatic nature, except in a few instances. It must be primarily eschatological; it must be referring to the fact that we will in fact be changed. The essential thing to make change possible has occurred — Christ died and rose again. (And in this life we will see flashes of that, just like in Jesus’ ministry there were moments when the Kingdom broke in and we see a miracle. And these moments tell us there is something better awaiting for us and God is gracious enough at times to allow a person or a church or a community to experience transformation at some level.) But we can’t get into the habit of thinking that this dramatic change is normal, this side of the Kingdom. What’s normal this side of the Kingdom is falling into sin (in big or small ways), and then appropriating the grace of God and looking forward to the transformation to come.


What are we to make of this whole idea of “life change”?

Is this what the Gospel promises us in Christ, and if so, what’s it all about?

Let’s discuss it today.


  1. He does change us. And quite often against our will.

    And often in ways that are imperceptible. Although sometimes the changes are dramatic.

    The point is that we trust that He will complete the good work in us that He started.

    And we will always (as long as we are up and taking in nourishment) be fully sinful….and fully justified.

    Sinners in fact…and saints by faith.

    Thanks, Mike.


  3. maybe Michael understood why it is important that we, with our injured human natures, don’t think ourselves so ‘saved’ that we can ever point the finger at other people while looking down on them . . .

    at some point, among some faith communities, the line between hating the sin and hating the sinner got blurred. And the result is a protracted culture of finger-pointing, self-righteousness, and judgmentalism . . . in short, what appears to the world as ‘hypocrisy’ coming from a pride-full people deluded about their own superiority over others. . .

    could Michael have been trying to wake people up to that delusion ?
    I think he WAS trying to do that.
    Well, he was pretty good at trying, I’d say. You can’t read Michael’s post without responding at a gut level, it is that incisive.

    Change? Transformation?
    oh yes . . . on this painful journey, after we are humbled, comes grace

  4. People do change and often appear to experience a transformation–just ask the family of a recovering alcoholic who’s been sober for years.

    At the same time our changes/transformations are very tenuous. Relapses are likely. Unintended consequences of changes occur (“I liked him better drunk.”). At some point in our lives we realize we’ve done left off growing up and gone to growing old–and growing old is a physical shipwreck. Not all changes are for the better.

    My somewhat melancholy nature causes me to agree more with Luther and Mark Galli…..

  5. “Has an undiluted devotion to Jesus” – St. Peter denied Him three times.

    “Pursues a biblically informed view of the world” – the most Christologically savvy Presbyterian theologians I read in seminary also wrote long tracts defending chattel slavery.

    “Is intentional and disciplined in seeking God’s direction in life” – I’ve known folks who were SURE they had God’revealed will as to who their spouse would be. God, however, neglected to reveal the same to the other (dis)interested party…

    “Has a spirit of continuous repentance” – that, of course, requires a continuous recognition of our continuous sinfulness.

    “Builds healthy, reciprocal human relationships” – *cough*AbrahamandSarah*cough*

    “Knows how to engage the larger world where faith is not necessarily understood” – pretty vague. Is this slow, steady witnessing to a skeptical family member? Culture warrior apologetics? Or something in between?

    “Is aware of personal ‘call’ and unique competencies” – by mt reading of St. Paul, he was more interested in people honoring Christ in their present circumstances than in their “discovering their competencies”

    “Is merciful and generous”, “appreciates that suffering is part of following Jesus” “Has a passion for reconciliation”- OK, I can’t argue with him here. It would be nice if these got more airtime in evangelical circles, however…

    “Is eager and ready to express the content of his faith” – spoken like a true extrovert.

    “Overflows with thankfulness.” – for being good? For being “saved”? For the promise of deliverance from this body of death?

    I’m not a Lutheran, but I was raised one, and there are some points where the Law/Gospel dichotomy fits well. And this sure is one of them.

    • +1

    • But Peter didn’t deny Jesus when he was hanged upside down on a cross, in order not to die like his Lord and Saviour, and that is what Jesus prophesied to him when he was still living (before he told Peter he would deny him 3 times).

      OK, was Sarah even a “Christian” in any sense? She was happy to upset Abraham and throw Ishmael and Hagar out to die in the dessert, after using Hagar’s body for a surrogate baby. Nasty B*tch if you ask me.

      I am not in agreement with some of this list either “a Biblical-view of the world????” women as chattel (house servant and sex slave is pretty much the summary) is the Complementarian’s view of the Bible today. But, when the people in the book of Acts were filled with the Holy Spirit, all Heaven broke loose on earth. There should be more to our lives once saved. More to live for, more to do in life. Christians should NOT look exactly like their neighbours. I get exceedingly tired of church leaders who are all wet-behind-the-ears out of seminary (or worse, no training and just appointed) who think they can preach, but can’t, because they simply don’t get the call of God on our lives.

      Following Jesus is dangerous. Like C.S. Lewis said in Narnia, Aslan isn’t tame, but he is good. You don’t technically have to do much with your salvation, if you feel Christianity is just a ticket into Heaven (Fire Insurance). You will still feel saved. Board, and a little annoyed with others who get in your way maybe (the tax man, the poor, etc.), but saved. But if you do, you are in for a crazy ride. Like JRR Tolkien explains in the Hobbit, Hobbits don’t like adventure. They like things nice and orderly and predictable and… suburban? That is how I would describe most leaders who build churches full of church attenders who call themselves Christians.

      Following Jesus mostly, upsets leaders. Your middle-class church leader will not like you pointing out their lives are too mundane and caught up in the world to be leading others. That is a fun one to point out 🙂 They are constantly freaking out about the “worldly sins” because everyone is so board they keep wandering over there. Perhaps church leaders should be the ones who shake people up, tell them life isn’t just struggling to maintain a middle class life-style. Churches don’t save you (nor does doctrine). Go live what you think Acts says. Sure, Paul got spiritual calls to go places, but he also just went where his heart called him. He loved people like Timothy, and was eager to go see Timothy, eager to get back to the Jews of Jerusalem, ended up dying for that attempt. Would you call Paul’s life a failure? Hardly.

      The first thing I tell ANYONE about prophesy is: don’t prophesy about who someone will marry, that is a worldly wish (marrying in general is not a “Call” but a desire) or about their future kids. Prophesy about God’s calling on one’s life. His heart.

      I spent too much of my life wondering “where” God was calling me. Then I just began living life and God began calling me to do stuff I didn’t want to, I did it, and it has been the best ever since. I feared getting to busy with life to hear God, but God knocked anyway and I ducked and hid for months, eventually, I said yes ( we adopted a special needs kid from the Foster System, which was way beyond our families functioning rate at the time), and never looked back. It has been a blessing all around.

      Life filled with God means God can interrupt your life and call you to switch directions. You do, and it shows. I have had the most amazing conversations with non-Christians about my life since we adopted. But, they point out, most Christians don’t do stuff like that, why did we. Yeah, most Christians are zombies is my general reply.

      So, I would say: A Christian is awake and aware of Aslan moving in the Land, a real Christian goes to Him when others lay asleep. They will find other Christians there with Aslan, but they won’t all belong to one institutional church or denomination or even movement. They are not under a human leader, just Jesus.

    • Not sure whether or not you followed the link to MacDonald’s original post. He fleshed out some details on each of the twelve bullet points and you may find them informative.

  6. There are many ways Christians see the transformed life. Most usually project their own life into the illustration. We may see a transformed life like a roller coaster, with many ups and downs. We may see it like climbing a mountain, continually climbing and occasionally hitting a plateau.

    For me, I like Mike Spencer’s wilderness analogy. I am travelling along various paths in the wilderness, not sure if I am making progress.

  7. At the risk of starting a whole big thing about law/grace again, this post reminds me of a few quotes from Gerhard Forde. This one is from his book Justification: A Case of Life and Death.

    “We see that the law simply cannot bring into being what it commands… The law says, ‘Thou shalt love!’ It is right; it is ‘holy, true, good’. Yet it can’t bring about what it demands. It might impel toward the works of the law, the motions of love, but in the end they will become irksome and will all too often lead to hate. If we go up to someone on the street, grab them by the lapels and say, ‘Look here, you’re supposed to love me!’ the person may drudgingly admit that we are right, but it won’t work. The results will likely be just the opposite from what our ‘law’ demands. Law is indeed right, but it simply cannot realize what it points to. So it works wrath. It can curse, but it can’t bless. In commanding love law can only point helplessly to that which it cannot produce.

    The simul iustus et peccator makes it impossible to talk of some sort of moral progress or perfection, and where every state is the platform for the next leap. If that were the case, justification as an imputed, unconditional gift would make little sense. The higher one gets, the less grace one would need, until at last one could get along without it altogether. Justification by faith would be something like a temporary loan to cover the debtor until the debt was actually paid, Then “good works” would be a matter of progressively paying off the debt, perhaps according to the popular slogan, “become what you are!” where all the stress is usually on the become (you had better, or else!).

    The simul makes all such schemes of progress impossible. The justification given is a total state, a complete, unconditional gift. From the point of view true sanctification is simply to “shut up and listen!” For there can be no more sanctification than where every knee bends and every mouth is silent before God, the only Holy One. And God is revered as the Holy One only where the sinner, the real sinner, stands still at the place where God enters the scene and speaks. That is the place where the sinner must realize that his or her way is at an end. Only those who are so grasped that they stand still here and confess to sin and give God the glory, only they are “sanctified.” And there cannot be more sanctification than that! Whoever knows this knows that there is an end to the old, there is a death involved, and that being a Christian means ever and anew to be blasted by that divine lightning (for we always forget it) and to begin again. As Luther said, “pro ficere, hoc est semper a novo incipere.” (To achieve means always to begin again anew). ”

    • For some reason, I can never hear (read) enough of Forde.


    • I’m huntin’ down Forde…..

    • Except of course, maybe following Christ isn’t about fussing that we are still sinners at all. Maybe it is similar to, oh who was it, Elijah or Elisha – I think Elisha’s servant. He was all fussed because the enemy army surrounded them, but Elisha opened his eyes, and there was the true army of God.

      You are still focused on the mortal – I am a reluctant do-gooder, I need to see myself more as a sinner to be “right” with God. *Yawn*

      I personally call BS, you don’t have to sit there and fret that you may be thinking you can do things in your own power. Because following Jesus in the Kingdom of God means relying on the Supernatural to even see in this land. Consider this, there is no earthly Kingdom of God, we can’t see Jesus and everyone suspects he died 2,000 years ago and we are as nuts as Elvis disciples.

      We, however, follow a “dead” guy who never was Royalty (he died on a cross, shame of all shame). We claim to have the Holy Spirit in us, yet so many Christians just ignore it’s presence. Why?

      Do you know how stupid you sound in the first place claiming you are part of an invisible Kingdom lead by a 2 millennia old serf, who was killed but secretly rose again and became King of the Universe (King over all) but no one has seen him since?

      You better have something backing this claim! Not, your cousins’ dog’s brother’s uncle once saw a man healed of a foot sore on a missions trip to Timbuktu.

      How about, I am filled with this “invisible” King’s Holy Spirit and through that Spirit can do great things? No? Then why are you fussing about your sin status. Who cares? Honestly! If you have the Holy Spirit, you can discern the words of God, you can follow God’s lead, you can do things other’s can’t – prophesy, heal the sick, raise the dead, speak in tongues (but not necessary to be Spirit Filled), discern words of prophesy. The catch, of course, is most of us don’t…

      So we sit around and fuss – Oh No! If you go and “do” something for God, then you will forget about God’s Grace, if you don’t contemplate your utter depravity 2.6 min. per day you will get all puffed up with pride (which technically should be good for you, since then you would see how puffy you were and that would remind you of your sinfulness) and forget about God. I mean, do you guys have the Spirit or not? If you do, trust me, you won’t forget God, he is too In-your-face to begging to feel like you could run off without him in your life. I never worry that I might feel all self-sufficient if I don’t focus on God, I just worry I don’t stop and listen to him enough to be effective.

      Yes, it is a rant, but I am fed up with young pastors who don’t have a single experience with the Holy Spirit getting all caught up in us needing to understand our sinfulness. Um, yeah, so? If I lay self (sinful or not) down, then I get the Spirit – way more beneficial.

  8. simul iustus et peccator the mystery continues!

  9. Bill Metzger says

    Focusing on transformation is focusing on SELF. Keep your eyes on Jesus and the Cross. Let Him worry about any “change” in us. GALATIANS 2:20.

    • You has said something very important here, Bill.

      I preached on the Beatitudes a few weeks ago. I came across a statement by Martin Lloyd-Jones to the effect that one of the qualities of the meek (humble) person is that one would be astonished that God and other people should think so well of him. I suspect the same principle applies to spiritual progress or sanctification. When one is focused on “how well I am doing” one falls inevitably into a trap.

      Let’s call it a spiritual corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

      • Brillant parallel! I’ve also thought of it as like those clusters of stars that you can see out of the corner of your eye in the night sky, but when you try to look straight at them, they seem to disappear.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I suspect the same principle applies to spiritual progress or sanctification. When one is focused on “how well I am doing” one falls inevitably into a trap.

        Let’s call it a spiritual corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

        There are a lot of things that come about only as a byproduct oher side effect of something else. Aim directly for them as your goal and you’ll either never get there or your fruit will go very sour. Lewis described happiness or joy as one of these; last night “cleverness” or “style” in writing came up (with Jerry Jenkins and one local fanboy wannabe as type examples).

    • Yep. So interesting how, despite slightly different goals, me-centered prosperity gospels and me-centered pursuit of holiness gospels boil down to the same glop.

    • I think you may have something there.

  10. Then there is this from Dr. Forde (I’m not sure where this comes from)

    “Am I making progress? If I am really honest, it seems to me that the question is odd, even a little ridiculous. As I get older and death draws nearer, it doesn’t seem to get any easier. I get a little more impatient, a little more anxious about having perhaps missed what this life has to offer, a little slower, harder to move, a little more sedentary and set in my ways. It seems more and more unjust to me that now that I have spent a good part of my life ‘getting to the top,’ and I seem just about to have made it, I am already slowing down, already on the way out. A skiing injury from when I was sixteen years old acts up if I overexert myself. I am too heavy, the doctors tell me, but it is so hard to lose weight! Am I making progress? Well, maybe it seems as though I sin less, but that may only be because I’m getting tired! It’s just too hard to keep indulging the lusts of youth. Is that sanctification? I wouldn’t think so! One should not, I expect, mistake encroaching senility for sanctification.”

  11. The process of change is one that has always mystified me. In recognising the need for change in my life in multiple areas I have sought counsel from professional and non-qualified counsellors, both Christian and secular. My experience has been mixed (whether the cause of that is the counsellor or counselee is open to discussion) and noticed or recognisable change (internal and external) has been varied.

    I have no problem acknowledging and owning my own sin. I am at the age that pretending fools no one and the fruits of my lack of transformation is painfully before me most days. To now look back at the decisions I have made or not made and the impacts that these have had on those I love is painful to say the least and devastating if I am brutally honest. Yet somehow in the midst of all that I have experienced change – even I would say ‘transformation’.

    As I write I am in the midst of an amazing transformation which I am still wondering whether it is real. To put it simply I feel like I have ‘woken up’. Probably 30 years later than in hindsight than I would have liked and certainly not having left the flotsam and jetsam in my wake that I have. Yet here I am. It is one of those times when you experience the incarnation of grace in your life. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest and author, says something along the lines that we are transformed either through prayer or suffering – how do I wish now that I had been a more prayerful person. Interestingly the suffering is not just my own but also the suffering I have inflicted on my family.

    So how did I wake up? Would love to be able to be able to give you ‘7 steps to awakeness’ but it hasn’t happened that way. Maybe it was a spouse who beyond reason chose to continue to love me and demonstrate divine love and forgiveness. Maybe it was the pain and suffering that smacked me over the head hard enough to make me take notice. Maybe it was being in the second half of life that makes you reassess what the heck it is you have been doing with your life. Maybe I ‘manned’ up to what I had done and decided I had to fight for what I love. Maybe all those, but more than maybe, I have experienced grace. When Jesus said I’ came so that everyone would have life, and have it in its fullest’ I am beginning to believe that unquestioningly.

    When I consider my own salvation I believe I have been saved, I am being saved and I will be saved. So I also believe that in Christ I have been changed, I am being changed and I will be change. That is my hope and prayer

  12. I think it’s a both/and not an either/or and a huge mystery or paradox

  13. Marcus Johnson says

    One of the problems that always arises when we talk about “change” is that we, for some reason, cannot separate the change that God may or may not require with the change we expect to see in others. We’re still that foolish generation looking for signs–only this time, for signs of what we think constitutes “true” repentance. In my experience, unfortunately, most folks aren’t looking for “change” as much as “conformity” to their cultural norms. So, when you find Jesus, you’re supposed to get a job, stop drinking, cut your hair, vote Republican, etc. It becomes more of a conversion experience to conservative, middle-class White American values than true submission to the work God is doing inside of each of us.

    That whole mini-rant is really just a prelude to my conclusion about “change”: maybe this is a question for which there is no overarching answer. If we go too broad, then we dilute the significance of this “change”. If we go too specific, then we risk inserting our own expectations based off of our cultural identity into a list of requirements, which make the change more about what we want to see than what God is already doing, has done, and will do. I think McDonald failed on both counts with his list.

    • Nice application of “that foolish generation looking for signs.” wham.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      So, when you find Jesus, you’re supposed to get a job, stop drinking, cut your hair, vote Republican, etc.

      Even without Jesus, I’ve always worked a job, don’t drink, worn my hair short, and voted Republican. So what’s this “change” they’re talking about?

  14. Isn’t one of the most common statements made before a divorce something like, “I thought you would change”?

  15. I was one who read and responded to yesterday’s post. My response was strong and I’d like to explain why. Some people probably read Michael’s post from the perspective of someone sitting in church and hiding some sin because they were concerned for their reputation. I read that post thinking about a room full of men I have sat with multiple times. These are men in a work release program because they are soon to be freed from prison and are being eased back into society. Most are the usual suspects like drug abusers/dealers, thieves, etc. But some are in an even tougher spot. They are people who are in there because they hurt (even killed) others. And those they hurt were often those they loved because they are most likely to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ve come there to hold a Bible study and repeatedly the biggest concern they express is that they don’t go back to being the person they were before they turned to Jesus. Not mainly for their sake, but for the sake of others. I connect with and get along well with these men because I feel the same anger and some of the twisted desires that landed them here owing to some abuse I received in my past. Galatians is my favorite study to do and here is what I tell them (in summary):

    You are a new creation in Christ, forgiven and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. With this new life you have a new set of desires that are at war with the desires of your flesh. God’s universe abhors a vacuum and so it isn’t about NOT doing this or that (vacuum), it’s about faith expressing itself through love (filling). If you live with Jesus and indulge yourself in these new Spirit given desires then you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. You will bear the fruit of the Spirit and when you fall (because you will) just get up and keep on keeping on with Jesus.

    I have done that Galatians study with multiple groups as much for myself as for them. But then I read something like Michael’s post yesterday, I look at how paltry the change in my life has been. I also think about how many of the guy’s I’ve talked to just end up back in jail. Then I get mad because there has to be more hope of change. This isn’t about reputations or theology; this is about not destroying ourselves and those around us.

    • I experienced the same angst while doing prison “ministry” in the ’90’s. I would have to say that our observable “success” rate was 0%.

      • I know what you mean. After years of doing this I stopped. The facility director periodically emailed me for about a year after I left, asking me to come back. I guess he thought it was doing them good but frankly the emotional toll became too much for me as other discouraging things were also happening in my life then. That all goes to show you what a selfish little piece of shyte I am. Not willing to “visit Jesus in prison,” not willing to “lay my life down” for those in need. If this was a performance based system I guess I wouldn’t even get into heaven, I’d end up with the goats. Bleeeeeeat.

        But on the bright side there were some visible “successes,” men who I still run into now and then. So, not quite 0%.

        • TPD,

          I was in my late 30’s early 40’s when I was involved in the prison ministry. At this point in my life I’d say that doing such is a “mature” mans calling–something we can do simply because it is good and right, not because it will have “results” based on preconceived expectations. Something entered into totally out of love. If it isn’t rooted in love with zero expectations, then it really isn’t “ministry”, but actually something which we use as an egoic boost.

          Richard Beck has some interesting prison experiences; http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/search?q=prison

          • I remember reading somewhere that Dorothy Day routinely discouraged people from doing the kind of work with the poor than she did if they couldn’t do it out of a love that had no ulterior motive and that didn’t expect “results.” In fact, I believe she said that to do so would be self-serving and do more damage than good.

          • “At this point in my life I’d say that doing such is a ‘mature’ mans calling–something we can do simply because it is good and right, not because it will have ‘results’ based on preconceived expectations.”

            That is some good wisdom.

        • TPD, I seldom comment but I want to pipe up. Prison ministry is a difficult and draining job. As you say, it takes a toll. You are not selfish because it drained you and you had to leave it, especially as there were also other stressors in your life. And doing it wasn’t necessarily a one-off. After you refuel (and that takes as long as it takes) and after personal affairs even out (if they do), you can do it again, or something different.

          The tragedy isn’t that you had to stop but that there are not more people willing to take a turn.

          Some people get into terrible places and become deeply broken. For them, simply getting through life sane may be a triumph. “Success” is individually determined and it is beyond our ability to decide what that is for others. Leave it with God who is most fair and loving and has the additional benefit of seeing all, being among it everywhere.

          That’s why our job is to simply love with clarity. God takes it, to what effect/affect we may never know.

    • “Not mainly for their sake, but for the sake of others.”

      This might be the most important thing to remember in any discussion on the way a life changes through the Gospel.

      People are moved to become Christians because on some level, they have seen their Lord die. They have seen it and have been moved, with the Roman soldier, to say “surely this man was the son of God.” The life that emerges from that is one of profound empathy, of compassion. A Christian cannot see one in the image of God suffer and fail to be moved in the same direction they were moved when they “saw” Christ this way. This is the “new life” that acts as the counterforce to the old impulses of the flesh to abuse.

      I know a group of guys who went through a Christian rehab program, a year long. I attended their graduation to cheer them on and encourage them, but what I saw was horrifying. The parting words from their mentor, and one of the program’s leaders, could be distilled as “Make sure you read you Bible every day. That way you’ll stay sober.”

      I can only assume that was the character of the whole program. Several of the guys relapsed and, in shame, disappeared from fellowship and the life of the Church. Every time we’d hear from one of them, there was less and less about their situations to inspire hope for them.

      Being told to stare at yourself in a mirror, and employ grand schemes for personal improvement — motivational speaking with a slightly spiritual twist — is a recipe for disaster.

      Being told that Christ has died for us, Christ has risen, and that a new world exists in which the temptations of the flesh gain no traction….I’m probably oversimplifying here, but that, in the long run, and in the many ways our corporate life in Christ gives us access to these Truths, that’s what produces real change.

    • But you see, that’s exactly it. As soon as we begin to delineate what sort of changes ought to have happened, we’re setting a bar we still can’t possibly clear. You know this from your own experience. So when we fail to achieve our own standards of life improvement resulting from faith, what do we do? Has God failed us? Is the Gospel a lie? Did we fail God? Is the solution to try harder, to believe more?

      Anytime we think the solution to the brokenness of humanity lies within us, the result is destruction. It is simple, child-like trust in Christ alone that can make us whole. It will do more than just change us, but it will not improve us on our own terms.

      Your friends may or may not go on to escape the destructive lifestyle habits that landed them in trouble. Christ love them the same anyways, he still died for them, and he walks with them through any darkness. This is our comfort and hope form which any Spirit led improvement must spring.

      I mean, I’m with you: the change in my own life is paltry on a good day. So what are we to do then? Spencer’s post brings comfort to the sinner unable to fix himself. At the end of the day, that includes everybody, for whom the unconditional embrace of Christ is the best of all possible news.

      • I get what you are saying BUT after reading yesterdays post the way I FEEL inside is that this Good News isn’t good enough. That post stirred up and brought a lot back to the surface. There is so much pain associated with hurting others both for the predator as well as the prey. Sin is unimaginably ugly. If Jesus came to save then… well I don’t know what then, I guess that is what we are trying to work through here.

        “So when we fail to achieve our own standards of life improvement resulting from faith, what do we do? Has God failed us? Is the Gospel a lie? Did we fail God? Is the solution to try harder, to believe more?”

        What I do is get mad. Then Jesus says “Will you leave me also?” and I respond “Where else will I go, only you have the words of eternal life.” And the cycle starts all over again.

  16. I think about this a lot, having been involved in a number of churches that faltered, and two that actually died because, broadly, either church staff or laity, or both, were not open to transformation. IMO, it is the *openness to being transformed* that is important. If you are open, then yes, you get on the roller coaster, and take the journey.

    I’ve come to believe that when they die, a Christian should—despite the ups and downs on the coaster—have come to a a higher point of sanctification than they were when their journey began. Are you completely “fixed”? No, of course not. That happens on the other side, in the Kingdom. Have you stumbled and continued in sin. Yes, of course. Are you more aware of the guises of sin in general, and therefore more tenderly pricked by it? Yes.

    Maybe you only progress a bit in sanctification. Maybe you progress a lot. But if you are the same as, or worse than you were at the start, then (again IMO), something that should have happened has not happened. What I have seen are a lot of fire-insurance Christians, who either don’t know about or don’t take sanctification seriously. I also have seen many people who do not want to do the introspective work of considering that they, and not just other people, sin. It is easy to say “I am a sinner,” without actually thinking about, praying about, and with the Spirit’s help, doing something about *specific* sins to which you are prone.

    IMO, as long as a person is thoughtful and open to being transformed, the Spirit has room to work and some kind of transformation will take place, no matter how messy, or in fits and starts.

    BTW, I am not talking here about people with emotional or personality disorders or other forms of mental illness. I have met a great number of people with these characteristics in churches I have served. They often cause considerable damage in a church; however the older I get, the more compassion I have for them. It is very difficult for people in these situations to change.

    • Vera
      I have often wondered if expectations come into play. I have seen some Christian communities where it seems that there is no expectation of progress, and guess what – there is little. The same issues 30 years on!
      A friend of mine just closed a church on behalf of a denomination because it was unhealthy.

      I have also been in communities where there was explicit recognition that all of us have our stuff to deal with and what was encouraged is that we embrace the process and work with God. And in those places some of us have experienced tangible growth. And that is not to say that it is not messy!

      • Ken,
        Sadly, in more than 30 years of church work I have never been in a community where there was an expectation of progress. As a person with teaching and discipleship gifts, that has made the sledding rough as I have tried to bring those things into the communities.
        I’ve been in both mainline and evangelical non-denom churches and have found similar lacks of expectations, but for different reasons. In the mainlines, there was a sense that the church is an extension of family or another civic organization. So, you belonged to the Rotary Club, and your church. Same expectations for both orgs. In the non-denoms, the emphasis was bringing in the numbers, and getting them saved… but then after that, no mentoring, walking alongside, not even any teaching that salvation was just the start of the Christian life.
        And so, both leaders and laity just stay where they are, no one expects any progress, and x number of years later, they get what they get, usually in the form of some folks’ bad behavior boiling over and causing severe problems. Not only do they cause disruption, but the rest of the people don’t know what to do about it, either.
        No one’s learned anything, matured, grown wiser, etc. It’s a tragedy, really.

        • Vera, really? People have not grown? As a former pastor, I get that people may not have gotten with the church’s program or met certain expectations of church culture. But do you really imagine that God has not been at work in their lives, accomplishing his purposes?

          • Chaplain Mike, I have been in some exceptionally bad churches. These churches didn’t have a program for people to get with.

            The few people I know who grew were folks who came in from the outside, open to being transformed. I had a number of them in groups I led. But the prevailing church culture tended to eat these people up. Some of them left quickly. But others stayed, as I myself did, thinking that the church could change, become healthier. Some of the greatest sorrows I’ve had as a church leader involve watching people I’d discipled suffer at the hands of others who either wanted their family/small town church to remain a nice civic organization (the mainlines) or who put their friendships above everything (in the evangelical non-denoms).

            To answer your question, I do believe God has been at work in people I’ve discipled. And I do understand the Christian life involves suffering. However, while it is hard to suffer yourself (which I have) at the hands of church folks, it is much harder to watch people you’ve mentored suffer as they try to make a difference, and to know you are in part responsible for them growing to the point where they would take on responsibility that would lead them into the suffering.

            Now, I also believe God wants to work in people who cause suffering in churches. I think he is very patient with them. But going back to my original post, I believe people need to be open to transformation. If they are not, God does not force change on them.

            By the way, I realize I’ve had incredibly bad luck with churches during my life, and that my experience is probably not the norm. Unfortunately, that’s how it’s been for me.

  17. This conundrum has only begun to clear up for me as I intensively read over the past several years the works of David R. Hawkins, physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, philosopher, mystic, and teacher. The old religious language has always thrown me off: justification/sanctification, flesh/spirit, old man/new man. Yes, I recognize these at work in me but have not really understood. Hawkins speaks in more contemporary and scientific terms of self/Self or ego/Spirit.

    The “aha!” moment comes in understanding that we are not our ego, we are the Spirit of God that is within and gives Life. The trick is in transferring our sense of identity from this “utterly depraved” ego, Steve Martin’s worm, to that which we are born and intended to be, a child of God, and ultimately One with God, just as Jesus demonstrated and prayed we would also become. In my experience so far, this is not easily done.

    This ego is so strong that it is humanly impossible to overcome its selfishness and narcissism. The only power strong enough to overcome it is the Power of God as given to us all in His Spirit. Our part is to switch identity and allegiance, and to cooperate. A major wrong direction is to disguise the ego in spiritual robes and remain there. The world tells us our job is to civilize the ego. God tells us our job is to let it be transformed and eventually dissolved into His Oneness. Hawkins provides a road map that can be used positively to assess our own progress or negatively to judge and condemn others.

    My impression is that the Eastern wing of the church understands these matters much better than the West. I wish that representatives of that Eastern understanding would make at least as much noise here as the Catholics and the Lutherans.

    • CF, I agree.

      There are some RC’s who have done a good work of delving into these issues. Some that come to mind…Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Brennan Manning–I know there are some older mystics I’ve seen quoted that have also explored those areas of the False Self/True Self, egoic/unitive, etc.

      • Thanks, I just ordered Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward yesterday on CM’s recommendation. I find that the more these concepts are presented in terms familiar to the contemporary Western mindset, the more useful. Outside of dedicated church goers, I think that most religious language about spiritual matters has run its course. Looking for the cutting edge.

        • absolutely agree CF. Our religious language about spiritual matters is almost more a hindrance than a help. Somehow I find we think there is even some intrinsic power in those words. I continue to be challenged by writers such as Rohr as they do not allow me to remain in a rigid ‘church’ mindset. Hope you enjoy Falling Upward

          • Falling Upward is a MUST READ.

          • Yes, CF, it is about the Holy Spirit and God in us that is what we are called to respond to. I did reply to a post on this thread, but it disappeared. Anyways, the important part of that post was that it is about the Holy Spirit being our guide or window into this invisible Kingdom we claim to be a part of. We claim that some Peasant in an occupied Roman territory 2 thousand years ago is actually the Lord of the whole Universe, and beyond, that He established a Kingdom here on earth, but no one can see this Kingdom, nor has anyone see this Lord of All since!

            None of that makes a wit of sense unless we “see” this Kingdom with the Holy Spirit’s unveiling. I likened it to the prophet Elisha’s servant being able to see God’s army once Elisha opened his eyes. We need to see that following Christ is actually pushing back the darkness, since the darkness is the Prince of this world (we follow the King of a subversive Kingdom within the Prince’s world), the darkness is always present here. One day it won’t be, it will be gone, but right now, it is everywhere.

            What we do on earth may not have immediate results (e.g. Prison ministry), but following God will have many unseen results. We may not even live to see them all – the early Christians died in great numbers, then their kids or grandkids suffered the same fate again and again. They followed God by faith, not by seeing results. That is what Jesus calls us to. Many of their churches fell to Moslem conquering armies, many of their own families likely later converted to Islam, but the church grew, it turned and headed West, but it grew, and thrived. Jesus calls us to be ministry partners, not as earners of his approval. Since we are offered not forced, we can refuse – and we refuse a lot – but we are always being called to come follow him and partner with him in pushing back the darkness. The only way to know if you are pushing back, is to lean on the Holy Spirit for direction and wisdom. To see this world with Holy Spirit filled eyes.

            I’m not Eastern Ortho, but I work with quite a few (Greek) Eastern Orthos. I think you could add that the Eastern Orthodox see personal sin as a sickness more than a state of being. That Jesus is the cure for that sickness. That is what I have learned about their world-view, anyways.

    • ” The trick is in transferring our sense of identity from this “utterly depraved” ego, Steve Martin’s worm, to that which we are born and intended to be, a child of God, and ultimately One with God, just as Jesus demonstrated and prayed we would also become. In my experience so far, this is not easily done.”

      Of course not, because if the someone behind the scenes doing the transferring is not God, then it’s just a shell game run by an invisible confidence man, namely, the ego in one of its manifold subtle forms.

      • As someone who spent several years as a practitioner of Zen in the attempt to find my True Self, or my Original Nature, as Zen would have it, I feel entitled to say that the pursuit of the True Self is an endless and fruitless journey down a hall of mirrors without end. It’s a work for God to do in God’s time, and there is no way for me to force his hand or to initiate or finish such a gargantuan project. I’m becoming content to live as truthfully as I reasonably can with my imperfectly true self, the self that can be seen in public and that makes his home in the ordinary, imperfectly true world of everyday, imperfectly true reality.

  18. Many of the characteristics of a transformed life listed in the original post seem somewhat narrow; some of them may be evidence more of “change”, which for me implies modification of behavior and a focus on the external. David Benner in his book, “Spirituality and the Awakening Self – The Sacred Journey of Transformation” offers a less religious-sounding but (IMO) a broader and deeper understanding when speaking about transformation (I also appreciate his use of less religious language here – which allows for gaining a fresh perspective on this issue and for more meaningful conversations with less religious people). He writes:

    “By transformation I mean an enduring expansion of consciousness that expresses itself in four ways:

    1. increased awareness

    2. a broader, more inclusive identity

    3. a larger framework for meaning (how we understand and make sense of our self, others, God and the world)

    4. a reorganization of personality that results in a changed way of being in the world.”

    The book attempts to lay out the process and some of the means of how transformation occurs and can be better understood in the context of Fowler’s “Stages of Faith Development.” Also, Benner’s characteristics of transformation do have their basis in scripture and one can easily identify this in scripture and in Jesus’ teachings.

  19. Here’s my idea. I know its a little silly, hear me out.

    For the vast majority of human existence, life itself has been pretty miserable. But humans have always been the same. We’ve studied and recorded more, our social norms are different, but our brains are unchanged for the last tens of thousands of years.

    If we think we are learning true “things” throughout history – i.e., that slavery is inherently bad, that all humans are morally equal – then it means something odd for other previous societies. It means they saw and recognized these facts, and rationalized it away. Which is what I see in history books. The south didn’t disagree with the pain of slavery… they thought it was God approved and a necessity. Again, not that it wasn’t sad.

    Being born into life in Rome must have been disheartening. To take a “modern man”, in terms of chemistry, brain power, social awareness, etc; and subject them to a society where war is constant, women are property, work is nonstop (except when interrupted by war), food is expensive or scarce… You’d get a bunch of psychopaths. Which is kind of exactly what happened, if the histories of the emperors and kings is anything to go by.

    Part of the gospel is individual change. The Sermon on the Mount kind of change, to be above and better than the law, not mired in and under it. And yet, that message is so pervasive today, that even the most vehement anti-christian agrees with the message. That people are supposed to be good to each other is not even argued – its assumed! That assumption is absent in the cultures of the Ancients.

    And so I think the question you’re asking is a bit misleading. The Gospel requires change… a change that everyone has already made. The “golden rule” has spread to the entire globe, and not a person alive (barring a few radical exceptions) disagrees with the basic premise. Jesus won in a way that most atheists outside of Nietzsche fail to recognize. When was the last time you heard of the sex trade and went “yup, good people making clean money”. Or heard of a genocide and thought “yup, that’s how countries wage war”.

    So yes, we all live the lives of Job and Solomon; sometimes God fails us in spite of our faith, and sometimes we fail God in spite of our faith. But the larger battle, the battle over the -desire and ability- to be better, was won long ago, and we do a disservice if we don’t recognize the huge change the world has experienced.

  20. I’m always struck by how the examples of transformation we have in the New Testament involve someone seeing something that completely dissolves their view of how things were, and gives them a completely new vision of God, life, and themselves.

    Paul or Thomas having seen the Risen Christ, Zacchaeus being invited to dine with Jesus, the woman at the well, Peter at the empty tomb.

    The mind is boggled by the nature of what has just happened. One doesn’t walk away the same, it’s impossible.

    One doesn’t act human because one “thinks about” having been born, one simply WAS born. It is nature. Jesus rose from the dead, and then SHOWED UP for his disciples. Conversion complete. New nature bestowed. No inner spiritual magic trick necessary.

    1 Corinthians 15:58 is one of the best arguments that sanctification comes from the Gospel, and it’s been profound Good News to me (despite some who will claim it is Law): “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in cthe work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord dyour labor is not in vain.”

    This at the end of a dissertation of the bodily nature of Resurrection. You last. Your work lasts. Into the new world. Don’t believe the state things: decay and death are not the final word. Keep working, don’t give up because God wins, and we reap the reward of that victory: glorified bodies in the Father’s glorified world. And what you’re doing right now counts for the future New Creation that we hope for.

    To quote the cabby in”The Magician’s Nephew” who was transported to watch Aslan create Narnia:

    “If I’d have known about this, I’d have been a better man all my life.”

    • “don’t give up (comma) because God wins…”

    • I think you are correct, this was how I first reacted to hearing Jesus teachings, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, it was life changing, a righteousness that is different and fresh and infinitely attractive. I have to learn to accept my failures but this way that Jesus showed still intrigues me and I still aspire to live like this even if only for a few minutes in my life.

    • The problem with that quote is how many would say “you knew all along and chose to actively deny it. Ignorance is no excuse. On to hell with you.”

  21. This may be too simple for this discussion, but it seems like Paul covers this pretty well in Romans 7 and 8. How this looks will be different in each person. Praise Jesus for this.

  22. Jesus often told his disciples to not be afraid, to forgive one another and said that he came so that their joy may be full. Those things indicate that he did want to see change. It is change away from being fearful, angry, joy-less.

    The letters from the apostles to the churches indicated that Christians should “put on the mind of Christ” and the 1 Corinthians letter indicates that love “is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” If we are to be that way, then SURELY we need to change. I don’t know about you, but I know I do not love like that. I am one who keeps a “record of wrongs.”

    The question is HOW do we change? It is by submitting to the loving action of the Holy Spirit within us. OK…how is THAT done? It is different for everyone, but we can learn from one other. Surely many people who receive “Holy Communion” feel strengthened in their abiliy to continue on in life in a loving way. Others feel strengthened by working with the poor. Others have a prayer “practice” which allows them to “let go and let God” do the work within them. Others receive peace and strength through some artistic means or through prayerful reading of scripture. Others grow through their family relationships as they learn humility and selflessness. Others combine these things.

    This is not getting into the whole law/gospel debate. The good work going on within us is done by God. Our part is to show up. If you enter a room and find out that there is a surprise party for you, did you create the party? No. But you surely benefit from and enjoy the party.

    It is difficult to judge change in other people, so we ought not to try unless we are spiritual directors, I guess. It is even difficult to judge change in ourselves, especially if it happens slowly over a long period of time. So, like Jesus and the apostles said over and over, forgiveness is greatly needed. We need to forgive each other and ourselves. Forigiving ourselves is not an excuse to continue “bad” behavior. It is permission to go on learning to love as we submit to the Holy Spirit.

    That’s my take on it, anyway.

    • In my not-so-humble opinion, Joanie, you have this exactly right.

      “Learning to love as we submit to the Holy Spirit” is what we are to “do” in this life – and, as a contemporary Greek abbot has written, that process of struggling/stumbling toward God does not have holiness at its end – rather, the holiness is precisely **in the struggle** – the bringing of ourselves to “show up” in whatever ways we need to.


  23. “Love God, love others.”

    That list above from Gordon MacDonald…it honestly reads like poison to me. I’ve put in my time in hyper fundamentalist churches, both Baptist and Pentecostal, and seen too much and listened to too much rhetoric to buy into this.

    I can’t read things like “undiluted devotion to Jesus” without thinking of the worst types of people and personalities to come out of the Jesus Movement. They aren’t even human anymore, they are just hyper spiritual zealots.

    Just what is a “biblically informed” view of the world? Besides what you tell me it is, which disagrees with someone with equally authoritative qualifications, which disagrees with another.

    Who defines what is worship, what proper pursuit of God’s direction is like, how their “personal call” should be defined and practiced? Etc, down through the list. Almost always, someone else. Someone other than the person seeking to know these answers.

    At the end of the day, who is the sole authority for what is truth?

    It feels like the inescapable conclusion is “I am”. I am, in conjunction with the holy spirit, history, theology, church elders, community, etc. But I am. And you are.

    What is sanctification? Apparently it’s a combination of being nicer, accepting for you what is truth, growing in bitterness I mean discernment, and loving those close to you and wanting to see them improve in every regard…while not giving up on having as much or as little of a “personal relationship” with God as you can manage.

    I don’t know if this is the wilderness or not, but I definitely feel I’ve earned the title of Burnt Over many times.

    • Studying history has been both a curse and a huge blessing. A blessing because it’s allowed me to step back and start seeing how everything in Christianity fits together, who came up with what idea, how someone else might have changed…and how both had the guts to call it “biblical”.

      A curse because it’s made me aware of all this, and has filled me with dread and a desire to run as far away as possible from every contagion and perversion that has come into the church, whether it’s influences from the Millerites, Keswicks, the successors of the Wesleys, the excesses of Azuza’s descendants…etc. And it puts me at odds with those who don’t know history.

      And I’d much rather just get along with everyone and still have friends in this life. But I can’t partake knowing what I do.

    • Thanks for your words Stuart – when you used the words ‘hyper spiritual zealots’ I am reminded of my wife, before we were married calling me ‘a god machine’ – the term was not intended to have anything positive attached to it. Also funny about the George MacDonald list from CMs post.

      In times past those words and similar would just drive me harder to be what God wants me to be – well at least what I thought that looked like. If I just prayed more, served more, read my bible more…you know the drill. On reading them today I tried to look at them from a mindset not punch drunk from years of hyper Christianity and my own immature responses. Actually found some of the words sat well with me but only reading them now from a radically different view point with a very different interpretation and application


    • Agreed!

  24. There is a dearth in our process of discipleship. Relating to the above list of 12, it has to do specifically with #5, “Builds healthy, reciprocal human relationships.”

    We do not know how to walk people through their personal junk.

    Addiction issues get some attention in church, but for the most part we do not know what to do with a real person with real issues of abuse, loss, neglect, sexuality, depression, anxiety, etc.

    We disciple people into ministry before we help them bring the darkest parts of their lives into the marvelous and healing light of Christ.

    Then we wonder why there are so many “authenticity” issues, why we blame church leaders for being shallow and hypocritical. It’s because they’ve never pursued the path of wholeness, and don’t know how to move people there.

    This isn’t health & wealth, or accountability programs; I’m talking spiritual formation and soul care. True transformation, true experience of how Jesus pursues and puts a life back together. This is the Kingdom invading, and we push it away once it really encroaches our shadow side. Our Gospel is too shallow.

    I can only talk about it because I’ve experienced it.

    • Addiction issues…

      Next men’s prayer breakfast I go to, I’m going to have boxes of shredded wheat at every table to remind men about man’s and the church’s attempts at fixing addiction issues. Or was that cheerios?

    • True transformation, true experience of how Jesus pursues and puts a life back together. . . . I can only talk about it because I’ve experienced it.

      Jesus isn’t putting my life back together. I wonder if he loves me at all.

      • But you have had experiences that constitute the content of your belief that Jesus loves you, haven’t you? If you had no such experiences, how would you be able to talk meaningfully about the subject at all? It’s impossible to talk meaningfully about something that we’ve had absolutely no experience of, and here I’m including indirect experience as well as direct experience.

        • Miguel,
          Do you believe that the traditional discipline of spiritual direction is useless, then?

          • I’m not certain I’ve ever heard of the “traditional discipline of spiritual direction.” Is it the same thing as pastoral counsel, or somehow related to private confession? Those are very useful things. But Jesus is not my life coach. He’s my life.

          • Spiritual direction is most commonly carried out in monastic settings, though it may happen elsewhere. In spiritual direction, the one seeking discernment and direction in their spiritual life enters into a relationship with a mature believer known for their wisdom and maturity in the faith. When spiritual direction works well, it’s a long-term relationship in which the director and directee work prayerfully together to discern where God is speaking into the directee’s life, and what God may be saying to that person in the details of their life. Many of the great mystics of the Christian faith, like Saint John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, were renowned spiritual directors sought for their wisdom and virtue by many.

          • I see. I’m not sure if I agree with that practice. I don’t think God dangles his perfect will and specific plan for our lives out there like a mystery, leaves a few clues and says, “If you jump through the right spirituality hoops, the answer will become clear.” I tend to agree with the Lutheran confessions on this: God does not wish to deal with us apart from Word and Sacrament. Anything more comes from the Devil.

            I’m not against mysticism, I just think it ought to be focused on the mysteries of the faith (Trinity, Incarnation, Sacraments) and not on subjective experience.

          • Traditionally, the idea that motivates the practice of spiritual direction is not that God is playing hide-and-seek, but that our sin and ego-centrism are so powerful that they distort what we hear God saying to us. Spiritual direction is undertaken as a collaboration between the directee and director to laboriously work through those distortions on the path toward greater obedience to God’s will, and greater separation from our own sinful wills. What is traditionally called “holiness” is from the perspective of spiritual direction the by-product of greater obedience to God, which is partly facilitated by greater discernment of what God’s specific will is for the directee. It is typical for those who have advanced along this way to become excruciatingly aware of the magnitude of their own sinfulness as they gain a greater and purer vision of God’s purity. Part of the directors function is to provide a reality check for the directee from the outside, so to speak, to help the directee avoid pride and, more importantly, despair as they advance along the way.

            Although I have a lot of admiration for this method of spiritual ascesis (it seems so heroic, so brave, so audacious, dare I say, so manly), I’m very aware that it is a religious way that almost inevitably leads to very subtle forms of spiritual pride. And it does seem to establish a spiritual elite, mostly monks and nuns, that are considered the models for authentic spiritual life and holiness. If the way to God necessitates that I undertake such dogged and strenuous undermining of my sinful self, then, speaking for myself, I have no hope, because I don’t have it in me.

            I guess that’s why in my thoughts I’m tending these days to hang with Luther rather than the mystics and other spiritual overachievers; Luther, despite his considerable failings, insisted that there was room in the kingdom for the spiritually inept amateurs, of which I’m one.

          • Also, Miguel, you imply that I refer to one specific experience. I’m not. I’m referring to the sum total of my life in Christ. Experiences are certainly there, especially as I work out my faith with others in a community that seeks the best for one another.

          • Thanks, Sean. Good point. If you’re going a “work out your salvation with fear an trembling” direction with this, then I’m with you all the way. It’s just been a lot more fear and trembling for me than true transformation, kingdom invading, and life putting-together. You’ll have to excuse my terminal pessimism, it’s rooted in experience.

        • The content of my belief is not constituted of experiences that I have had. I was not there when Christ died and rose (though sometimes it causes me to tremble). I do not believe somebody else’s love, in terms of emotion, is something we experience. Speaking existentially, I have experienced love for others and could from it conclude that God possibly experiences the same towards me. It’s a long way from there to Trinitarian orthodoxy.

          Nonetheless, I believe Christ loves me not because of any experience I’ve had, but because of what he has done for me (see Luther’s explanation to the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism for a comprehensive litany of the gifts God has given me). You could say I’ve experienced the “first article gifts,” I suppose, but the Christian Gospel really begins with the second.

          Are you saying that hearing about something is an indirect experience? Because as far as empirical knowledge goes, I accept the dogmatic claims of Christianity on faith, not sight. I am highly skeptical of experience as a teacher because it too often imparts knowledge without wisdom. I know you might see an encounter with Scripture as an experience. I see it more as a divine intervention.

          • The content of Christian faith does not depend on experiences you’ve had, but your knowledge of those contents does depend on experience. Your encounter with Scripture may well have been a divine intervention, but if it wasn’t also an experience, you would not be able to make any comment about it, and we would not be having this discussion. You would have no knowledge or awareness of the dogmatic claims of Christianity if you had not had any experience of those claims.

          • This is true, but the distinction between direct and indirect experience cannot be so easily dismissed. Sean was referring to a direct experience of God’s love. This experience ought not be considered normative for the Christian, else many genuine believers be declared sub par.

          • I re-read Sean’s comment. He doesn’t once use the word “love,” nor does he talk about a direct experience of God’s love. He does talk about experiencing the effect of God’s working change in his life. You also have experienced the effect of God’s working change in your life, because the faith that God has given you as a free gift has made itself known to you through the dogmatic claims of the Christian faith, claims of which you have had experience. The difference between your experience and Sean’s is a difference in degree of specificity, and that is a real difference, but it is a difference in degree, not in quality.

          • Robert, thanks for pointing out the differences here.

            I could have done a better job by saying “I am in the midst of experiencing it.” Hope I didn’t give the idea that I’m a finished, unbroken, completed project.

            But yes, there has been transformation along the way. There had to be….and there has to be more.

            I framed this as an issue of discipleship purposefully. How did the disciples encounter Jesus, and how do we? I’m surprised (and not surprised) that nobody ran with it.

            Maybe I’ll submit a guest post for CM’s approval to try to flesh this out some more.


            For as thoughtful as you are, I’m stunned by such dismissive language as “Jesus is my life coach” and the like. What is discipleship to you? What is conformity to Christ, and empowerment by the Spirit? What are the tangible effects of the Gospel when applied to one’s life?

          • This discussion between Sean, Miguel, and Robert is very good. In some sense it is an exercise in “spiritual direction”. Spiritual direction begins and ends in the “certainty” of God’s presence and love, not in the certainty of specific personal actions.

          • Tom (aka Volkmar), I have enjoyed reading their discussion as well.

          • I don’t mean to be curt. I could agree with you on transformation being an ongoing process, but it is a slow process with often hardly discernable “results.”

            I just don’t relate to Jesus as a travel guide down the pathway of life. The instruction I receive from Him is very non-interactive and not specific to my situation. I believe that as disciples we encounter Christ through Word and Sacrament. It’s the only place I can find him, I’ve looked nearly everywhere else. I’ve thought I’ve found him several times, only to realize it was wishful thinking when my spiritual castle in the sky crashed on the shores of my ongoing sinfulness.

            And I have developed a highly allergic reaction to optimism when it comes to measurable success in discipleship. Optimism generally annoys me because it usually reflects a disconnect from reality. Every time I’ve thought I was doing great following Jesus, he has kindly brought me to a harsh reality check. We are damned sinners, and will remain so in this life. I like the idea of “progress,” but I’d rather leave the results in His hands ’cause I’ve seen the kind that I can produce.

            At the end of the day, “discipleship” is learning to trust Christ more fully. To “keep” his commandments is not to “obey” them as many Bible translators have interpreted: rather, it is to cling to His words, and believe them. Our faith is weak, it is foundational that we recognize this. Only then can we find where he feeds us and strengthens our faith in the Christian church, where “He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” I need that so much more than I need to become better at obedience. And for some reason, I find that receiving forgiveness directly from Christ himself somehow, strangely, and slowly, cause me to extend this forgiveness to others. The Christian disciple need only feast on this forgiveness in the person of Christ given to us in the Scriptures and the Supper, and God will use these to perform his work in us.

            In other words, I believe I contribute as little to my sanctification as I do to my justification. Salvation is sola gratia, all the way through. As I’ve quoted already, He who began the good work in me is the one who will be faithful to complete it.

  25. Stuart B is on to something for me about history. I’m going to rewrite Michael Spencer’s description of the Christianity of our time in brief….” But we have this treasure in saved, healed, delivered, and supernaturally CHANGED vessels…..God wants you to see just what a Jesus-controlled person is all about, so the power of Jesus is on display in the life I am living, and those who don’t have this life are….dying”.

    Now we all know that is bs, and no one here has suggested that the changes that happen are anything like this. Who can doubt that historically we have gone down many a false trail. Our modern Christianity wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Calvin’s doctrines and churchmanship, but today they really are losing influence( except many a young person likes what is called neo-reformed, I believe for the certitude and seeming completeness of its systematic approach). But honestly….sitting in pews in a lecture type system and believing in an exclusive system where your okay and all others are lost just doesn’t ring true. Not to mention their beliefs about women. And if you aren’t reformed, I think many here could name a few false changes that have happened in your denomination.

    But let’s be honest. The Gospel changes you. The full range of the Spirit could not be shown in the years and the earthly life of Jesus, but Christian doctrine regards it continued in the Christian society. And the glorified community which will manifest all the potentialities of the spirit of man will be a reality, demonstrating the full riches of the life of Christ for which it is the vehicle.

    Now we have been passed the mantle. I personally am no longer bemused by the many branches of Christianity.
    Our differences are real…..stand up for the strengths that are your branch. But I believe the Spirit will help us to put the good news in eye, ear, and hands on( for people like Don Miller) that the people of our time will be able to grasp. I think the vehicle, the community that does represent the full range of the Spirit of Christ is going to CHANGE again. It needs to Change again, because the times they are a changing is true, also.

    It probably is the wilderness types, some going to traditional braches, some planting new, that best sense some of the transformations that will be our generations contribution to the full range of the spirit of man that can only be realized in the community that is the kingdom of God.

  26. Patricia Stewart says

    Re: Gordon’s list – You know how we love lists and measures to assess ourselves . . . I flunked at number one. Praise God that He doesn’t keep a list like this.

  27. I just don’t know how to feel about those 12 points. I don’t really know that I’ve ever met the “transformed Christian.” Is that a checklist of accomplishments, or a set of ideals to be strived after?

    Not that it matters. I get so exhausted just thinking about those 12 steps. I think I can say with reasonable certainty that despite my best efforts, I will never be that good a Christian. I hope that Jesus can love and accept me just as I am, an un-transformed Christian.

    Good news for me! When I am diluted in my devotion to Jesus, He is undiluted in his devotion to me. When I ignore His words and truth given to us, his Word becomes flesh and dies for my failure to listen. When I forge my own path without consideration of His counsel, He still nevertheless completes the good work He began in me. When I don’t worship and fail to walk consistently in repentance, he never fails to shower His blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation on me. When I fail to build healthy, reciprocal human relationships, I can know that Christ himself experienced loneliness and betrayal. When I fail to engage the larger world, He sends out his Word and it does not return to Him void. When I struggle to find my place in this life, Jesus assures me of my place in His kingdom alongside numerous other outcasts of this world. When I am selfish, stingy, bitter, and unforgiving, Christ empties himself, gives generously, forgives the world its sin, and sometimes even softens the hardened heart within me. When I run from suffering, Christ embraces it on my behalf. When I fail to confess the faith to my neighbor, Christ pleads for me to the Father. When I am ungrateful for the many blessings He sends, He continues to give and delights to show mercy. When my human relationships are broken due to sin, He never lets anything stand between us.

    And if I were to turn and run from Him, you’d better believe he’d be coming after me, ready to receive me rejoicing with open arms.

    • ” I get so exhausted just thinking about those 12 steps. ”

      I get exhausted thinking about the first step.

    • Good stuff, Miguel.

    • Amen! What I feel (and I sincerely don’t mean to be dismissive of anyone or any particular tradition), personally, having come from a long journey in the wilderness—ranging from pentecostal fundamentalism to emergent to mainline to liberal agnosticism, and now finally feeling rested within a moderate Lutheranism—is that the Lutheran tradition is a particularly realistic, gritty, visceral, “tired-of-bs” form of Christian orthodoxy. It is particularly suited, I’ve found, for those who (like me) have been through the “do-it-yourself” holiness programs and the sanctification-or-alienation game and have finally, after years of pretending, faced themselves in the mirror of God’s absurdly wonderful ideal and found themselves absolutely and undoubtedly broken. I do not mean, at all, to diminish the awesome contributions of many other traditions; it’s just that, for me, the Lutheran tradition has been particularly comforting—it has convinced me to give up on my self-improvement project and start looking outwardly towards Christ: in Word, Sacrament and neighbor.

  28. W. “Perhaps I do not comprehend your meaning. Do we not while we deny ourselves, die more and more to the world and live to God?”

    Z. “We reject all self-denial. We trample upon it. We do, as believers, whatsoever we will, and nothing more. We laugh at all mortification. No purification precedes perfect love.”

    W. “What you have said I will thoroughly weigh, God being my helper.”

    The final words in the final exchange between Count Zinzendorf (Z) and John Wesley (W).

  29. I think real life change can only happen, and will only happen, when we are not seeking it. Just forget your need to improve, and that is improvement. “Blessed self-forgetfulness.”

  30. Don’t the “Evangelical Myth of Transformation” and the “Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox Myth of Sanctification/Theosis” have a lot in common? Of course, the latter is much more subtle and spiritually sophisticated than the former, and much older, but isn’t the one just a grown up version of the other, involving the same deficiencies that have been noted in the last two days?

    And wasn’t it the Reformation that highlighted these deficiencies for the first time in a systematic way?

    • Robert wrote;

      And wasn’t it the Reformation that highlighted these deficiencies for the first time in a systematic way?

      Yes. In doing so the Reformation has essentially thrown out the tub, the bath water, the baby, and has done a fair job of denying there ever was a baby in the tub of bath water.

      • Tom,

        I’m of a double-mind in all of this. I suppose my comments exhibit the way I vacillate between a kind of antinomianism and a kind of catholic idea of ongoing sanctification. That’s just where I am. Good thing for me that I’m also an Anglican, so that I can get away with my inconsistency without too much flack.

        • Robert F writes, “Good thing for me that I’m also an Anglican, so that I can get away with my inconsistency without too much flack.” I like that, Robert! As you know, I was brought up Catholic but not all my beliefs are lined up with the Catholic catechism. So I am always better off to send people to read parts of the catechism for the actual teachings of the Catholic Church. But, personally, I think there are things the Catholic Church can learn from the other “branches” of Christianity.

        • I love your transparency, Robert, and find myself in a similar position. As for the issue at hand: truth, I find, is often to be found between extremes. Perhaps it is between grace and truth that transformation lies—between God’s activity and our reception.

    • RobertF,

      see my comment below.


  31. An observation on transformation that I haven’t seen addressed yet. It’s a process as expressed in the image at the top of the post. It happens over time, sometimes a lifetime, sometimes (as in creation) into eternity. It’s not an event. It unfolds. Sacred transformation as when the divine within us is called forth by the divine outside of us is especially hard & long because we fail to grasp that it’s not a once & done, magic wand kind of thing. Plus, transformation of a divine nature may only be understood in light of its purpose, which is to love & serve others. Without that purpose, there is no point.

  32. I was out of town yesterday, but had I been here I would have offered this, from Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware; when I first encountered it, I felt something become free in me, like Marley’s chains falling off.

    “To keep us in simplicity, God may hide our spiritual progress from us, and it is not for us to measure ourselves.” (“The Inner Kingdom”)

    This does not mean one should not be aware of what is going on inside oneself; quite the contrary. But there’s a difference between knowing what’s there and measuring it. It’s the measuring that is problematic.

    That’s one difference between “the ‘Evangelical Myth of Transformation’ and the ‘Roman Catholic/Eastern Orthodox Myth of Sanctification/Theosis.'” Theosis is not, at its heart, about becoming someone who can constantly and consistently make correct moral choices from the correct motives.

    As Fr Stephen Freeman writes, Christ did not come to make bad men good, but to make dead men live. Sin is manifestation of INhumanity, of slavery to death – Heb 2.14-15. But in his Passion (Death + Resurrection), Christ has freed us from death and slavery to it and to everything that pulls us toward death & corruption. Theosis is about becoming the human beings we were meant to be, who live in humility and self-giving love without fear of death, in a union with God in the life he imparts to us which is appropriate to us as creatures. If we are living this way, judgments about “what constitutes change” become entirely superfluous.

    This life has been given to us so that we, in the freedom from death and the fear of death that Christ has won, can, in the security of God’s love, keep turning to God (repent – Heb. shuv, turn, Gr. metanoia, drop your agenda and trust [Christ], per N.T. Wright) so that we may learn to love like humans were created to love – which is like God loves, which is the whole point of the “be ye perfect” passages. This is what it means to attain to the Likeness of God, in Whose Image we have been made. “Behold, The Man!” said Pilate – prophetically. Adam wasn’t the First Man – Jesus Christ was.

    This is different than anything I ever encountered, either growing up Catholic or anywhere in Protestantism. There was, over time, a process of unfolding and refining of expression, if you will, in the Eastern Church, but there’s a reason it did not undergo a Reformation. Theosis is not simply a “more sophisticated myth of transformation.” It’s not, “Okay, now you have to measure up.” It’s, “The door is open… step on through, and here is some help for you to do that.” There is now NO CONDEMNATION in Christ Jesus.


  33. Luther said that one of the chief traits of sanctification is an ever increasing awareness and distress over our own sin. So much for the victorious christian life!