“In many cases our need to wonder about or be told what God wants in a certain situation is a clear indication of how little we are engaged in His work.” – Dallas Willard, Hearing God
I talk to people all the time who are frustrated with where they are spiritually. They want to be “better.” They desire to grow more like Christ. But they just aren’t getting anywhere.
They’re doing things to try and address it, and many times even good things. They’re trying to read their Bible. They’re going to church every weekend. They’re even in a small group. But still, they’re not seeing any transformation. So what’s going on?
What they’re really saying is they’re not being transformed. That the power of God isn’t evident in their everyday life.
How transformation happens
Many of us have misconceptions about how we’re transformed into the likeness of Christ. We think we can just read different books or listen to different radio stations or go to church every week and somehow we’ll change into godly people.
The Bible teaches something very different, though. In terms of transforming the human heart, it teaches that we’re actually powerless to do anything. That left to ourselves we are incapable of being righteous before God. And that’s the glory of the gospel — that we are offered salvation and eternal life solely through the magnificent grace of God.
But when it comes to transforming how we live, the Bible’s teaching is that God transforms us through His Spirit by the power of His Word, and that we are to make every effort to strive to live godly lives. Most believers and their churches have at least a basic understanding of how God’s Word transforms and renews us. When it comes to making every effort to live godly lives, though, it seems that many of us are less clear.
Make every effort
The language of “make every effort” comes from 2 Peter:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7 ESV)
We’re told that we should be exerting effort to supplement our faith with actions. That’s what the list that follows the command is referring to, these qualities of living that display on the outside how we’ve been changed on the inside. Now, notice that Peter says these efforts only serve to supplement, not replace, our faith.
Perhaps nowhere is this same teaching seen as clearly as in the opening chapter of the book of James, where we’re told simply to,
“be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV)
What James is saying here should shock us, because he’s saying that listening to the Word of God is not enough. Through James, the Holy Spirit is saying that listening to sermons and podcasts, reading Christian books, and even reading the Bible itself, none of these things are not enough on their own. They must be accompanied by doing something, otherwise we’re just deceiving ourselves.
John 8:44 tells us that Satan is a deceiver, using all kinds of schemes to distract us from obeying God. If we listen to the Word but never do anything with it, then we are doing his job for him. We are deceiving ourselves if all we’re doing is sitting through a church service on Sunday or even attending a group during the week, while not doing anything with what we’ve heard.
Lack of exercise
Think about this in terms of physical exercise. When someone breaks their leg and they aren’t able to bare weight on it for a significant amount of time they have to do physical therapy when it’s time to walk again. That’s because their leg muscles have atrophied. They’ve shrunken from not being used, so they then have to strengthen those muscles back up through exercise.
When you exercise, you’re actually tearing muscle tissue. Muscle is being built up by continual tearing that is then healed by scar tissue. As that happens more and more, muscles begin to grow.
This is exactly what has happened with so many of us in the church. We’ve spent so much time taking information in that we’ve forgotten how to exercise what we’ve learned, and now our spiritual muscles have atrophied from lack of use.
What’s needed now is to start putting those muscles to use. And yes, it will be difficult. It may even be painful. But it’s only through the hard work of exercising our faith that we begin to see transformation. Exercise may tear your spiritual muscles, but the grace of God acts as the scar tissue that heals the wounds and builds you up into something more perfect along the way.
How doing is linked to sanctification
After James makes his case that believers should be doing things based on what they hear from God’s Word, he says something very interesting:
“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:25 ESV)
That last phrase, “he will be blessed in his doing,” points out something that’s so often overlooked: that our sanctification happens as we minister to others. Our sanctification, our being transformed into the image of Christ, happens as we put our faith into action.
Most of us think we need to be transformed before we minister to other people. But what the Bible teaches is that we’re transformed as we minister to other people. It is in dying to ourselves, taking up our cross, and being obedient to Jesus that we’re transformed into the image of Jesus.
And that’s really what being “doers” of the Word means — being obedient to Jesus. So if we want to experience transformation, we need to ask ourselves if we’re being obedient to Jesus’ commands. Are we making disciples? Are we living on mission? Are we sharing out faith? Are we doing something?
We can’t expect to become like Jesus if we’re not doing what He did. We can’t expect to be transformed if we’re not obeying His commands.
But this obedience isn’t oppressive, or something that should cause us to groan. This is the reason we were created!
How obedience to Christ brings freedom
Ephesians 2:10 tells us that,
“we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV)
We are God’s workmanship. Another translation is that we are his masterpiece. And He created us as masterpieces for a reason, which is what? For good works.
We were saved by Christ that we might do good works in Christ. Which means we won’t fulfill God’s purpose for our life outside of obedience to Jesus. But in that obedience there is outlandish freedom.
That’s why James uses that paradoxical phrase, “the law of liberty.” He knows that if we’re obedient to Christ then we are free from the law and, ultimately, our sin. If we’re obedient to Christ we are free to experience the transformation God has in store for us.
If we are obedient to Christ, we are free in Christ. Which is why Jesus said,
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free…So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:31, 32, 36 ESV)