How to Spot a Transformed Christian

I do not come from a military tradition, but I have always been interested in how military people are trained. In his day St. Paul seems to have had a similar interest.

My curiosity once led me to a book by military journalist, Thomas E. Ricks, called Making the Corps, a boots-on-the-ground account of the process in which young people are transformed from recruits into Marines.

Recruits, Ricks writes, are normally bused into the training camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, late at night. There's a sign at the front gate that all of them see. It reads, "Parris Island: where the difference begins."

What difference might that be? How would one distinguish a fully-prepared Marine from anyone else? The answer might begin with the new ramrod body posture, the spotless uniform, the steely sense of focus and determination that marks conversation. Other characteristics? The obvious self-discipline, the toughness, the readiness to follow orders and to function as a member of a combat team.

A Marine is a best-practice warrior who models the highest levels of what military training can accomplish.

The Marines are by no means the only people who take such transformative experiences seriously. Colleges and seminaries talk a lot about this process, each claiming that it turns out world class leaders. There are businesses (Starbucks comes to mind) that believe that their profitability depends on turning employees into best-practice sales representatives.

How about churches and their goal of making of devoted followers of Jesus? What does the difference look like there?

We exist to see people transformed from a state of brokenness and selfishness to a state of wholeness and usefulness sometimes called Christlikeness. Paul used the word maturity when he talked about life-change. We want, he wrote, "to produce every person mature in Christ." And that "Christ be formed in you." Same idea.

If the church exists to see people transformed, shouldn't we be clear about what a transformed Christian looks like? If it's not hard to spot a Marine, how does one spot a spiritually mature Christian?

What are the core qualities that offer evidence that one is truly on a pathway toward Christlikeness?

This question first began to stir in me when, years ago, I was asked to join others in endorsing a massive, region-wide evangelistic endeavor. "This will change Boston" was the enticement. "A hundred thousand people will come to Christ" was the promise. At first hearing, those words were irresistible.

Then some of us began asking, "What would a changed Boston look like?" This simmers in my mind to this day whenever anyone talks about changing the world.

"Tell me," I want to say, "how would I know that the world had been changed. No more wars? No poverty? Everybody likes each other? Everyone competes to be more generous?" There were really no answers, and there should have been.

Now, decades later, I want to take a stab at answering my own question: What does a transformed person look like?

What are the signs that transformation is happening? Over time I built a list. Here goes:

I fully expect that every person who works in spiritual direction and discipleship will second guess every line I write. But I'd be a happy man if I knew that a few Christian leaders hammered on these answers and improved on them. That shouldn't be hard.

I arbitrarily limited myself to 12 bullets. Not to do so would have led to list-creep as I included everything I see in the Bible about so-called godly people.

As I built my list, I had to alter my vocabulary. The markers were of Christians being transformed, not already transformed. People-in-process, not finished products. See the change in tense? Actually, I don't think any of us is ever fully transformed or mature until (Philippians says this) Jesus completely changes us on that great ultimate day of transformation. This is our great hope.

But until then, what are the signs that transformation is happening? Here goes.

A transformed Christian …

1. Has an undiluted devotion to Jesus. Personally, I am drawn to the word devotion rather than love for Jesus. It is difficult to escape the sentimental flavoring in the word love. And I do not find sentimental love in that follow-me relationship Jesus initiated with his disciples.

For me, devotion suggests something more deliberate, even calculated.

It's not absent emotion but not defined by it either. Devotion infers a determination that one will organize his/her life around Jesus: his quality of character, his summons to know God as Jesus knows him, his unique grace and forgiveness for sins.

I, for one, believe that a transforming Christian renews his intention to be faithful to Jesus' influence on a regular basis, not because he is unsure but because he doesn't want to lose that "edge" of proactive commitment.

As the years of my own Christian life have passed, I've become more diligent in doing this, just as I have become more intentional about re-marrying (in spirit) my wife, Gail, again each day. I know she and I possess a piece of paper that says we were married a long time ago. But my heart says, Why not re-declare your desire to marry her again today? She'll love you for it. I have come to feel the same way about my devotion to Jesus as my Savior and rabbi-leader as I retool my life around what I see and hear of him.

2. Pursues a biblically informed view of the world. This means aiming to know the Bible well: its content and its imperatives.

There seems to be a universal concern in the Christian movement concerning biblical illiteracy. Blame it on busyness, technology, too many translations, the demise of Sunday school, or something else. But one thing is sure: we seem to be losing a working knowledge of our sacred literature. We think it okay to outsource Bible knowledge to preachers, writers, and instructors.

The transforming Christ-follower understands that he cannot simply live off the monologues of a favorite preacher. He must—to reflect the Psalmist—hide God's Word in his own heart so that it becomes a lamp to his feet, a light to his path.

3. Is intentional and disciplined in seeking God's direction in life. Eugene Peterson employs the term responsive obedience when he paraphrases Paul's challenge to the Philippians to push themselves toward increasing Christian maturity. Interestingly, he is writing to a church heavily populated by retired Roman military personnel. So Paul's letter is packed with military terms, "responsive obedience" being an example. As a soldier conditioned himself for battle, so the Christian, Paul said, was to "work out" his role in facing a morally dangerous world.

No transforming Christ-follower would ever be comfortable with spiritual passivity. Rather, a transforming follower of Jesus expects a battle. There will be choices, opportunities, opposition. And he prepares for all of it diligently. This is sometimes referred to as self-discipline. It means living by intention and commitment, developing life-habits in alignment with Jesus and replacing those that are not.

4. Worships, and has a spirit of continuous repentance. As in all other personal relationships, there is an appropriate rhythm in routines in order to refresh one's relationship to God. Worship is an appropriate description for this.

The transforming believer recognizes that these are the moments to elevate life to an eternal perspective, to experience interior cleansing, to rekindle a satisfying joy and hope in life. Like Isaiah, he gains a sense of his own true size and his need to acknowledge his unique forms of brokenness. In other words, he does not find it difficult to repent of his sins, to God or to others.

In such worship, we are reminded of God's purposes and concerns. And, finally, we are likely to come away redirected, renewed in our efforts to live and serve the Everlasting One who has made us in his image.

Our differing temperaments lead each of us to worship in different forms. Whether our worship is loud and extemporary or somewhat formal and carefully scripted is not the issue. The important thing for the transforming Christian is to exit the place of worship knowing that he is once more at peace with Jesus the redeemer. Not entertained, but energized.

5. Builds healthy, reciprocal human relationships. He is faithful to friends, and (if married) affectionate, attentive, and servant-like to a spouse, and (if a parent) patient and nurturing to his children.

Such a one is swift to admit when he is wrong, to forgive when offended, to offer support when another is in need. Perhaps the bottom line is simply this: we are talking about a person in whom others delight because, wherever he goes, he brings "loads of Christ" with him.

Can I personalize this? Once, someone said to me, "Imagine standing before your Maker and hearing this question: 'Have you supported your wife's efforts to become the woman God meant her to be?' For the transformed Christian, this question is relevant to all key relationships. The fact is that most people grow a bit whenever they are in the company of a transformed Christ-follower.

6. Knows how to engage the larger world where faith is not necessarily understood. Some of his personal choices and convictions on living may not appeal to those outside the edges of his faith, but those who know him usually accept his "peculiarities" because this Christ-follower brings cheer, stability, and energy. Admittedly, there are times when a person of faith will be despised, but hopefully there are more times when he is valued as an asset (not a parasite) to his "world."

It has not gone unnoticed that the temptation of modern church life is to draw its people into the church's programs and away from influential contact with the community.

A transforming Christian is likely to resist this gravitational pull. He will pursue friendships with people who walk in other spiritual pathways. He will make contributions to the greater community, especially those that bring equity and relief to struggling people.

In short he will not be absorbed into religious institutionalism.

Could I also add here that the transformed Christian does not allow the beauty and the stimulus of the larger world. He is mindful of artistic and cultural experiences. He maintains an informed, even prayerful, view of local and national affairs.

And he is aware of where history is going and what it takes to hand on a new and improved world to the generation that will replace him.

7. Is aware of personal "call" and unique competencies. In other words, It's not about me, but about what has been entrusted to me and what can be offered to others. The transforming Christ-follower believes he has been given a mission. Usually, if you ask, he can put that mission into words.

We are not speaking of pastors and missionaries only, but all of us. Part of spiritual transformation seems to include a growing sensitivity to a "call," something "out there" that needs doing in the name of Jesus.

And with the sensitivity comes a capability often called a spiritual gift. It is exhilarating to watch a young Christ-follower awaken to a power given him by the fullness of the Holy Spirit. At first there may be reluctance, even fear. There can be awkwardness, even some failure.

And then, like a young rose exposed to sunlight, the transforming Christian begins to blossom. God's Spirit anoints with unexpected power and vision, and sometimes you hear one say, "I was made for this."

8. Is merciful and generous. The amazing Barnabas is our model. We first meet him as the church's best example of generosity.

We see him taking risks when he welcomes Saul of Tarsus to the circle of believers in Jerusalem. It's Barnabas who observes a fledgling church (Antioch) trying out new styles of church life and refrains from squelching them. In fact he applauds.

There are Marines, and you know them when you see them. They bear the evidence of a remarkable transformation.

Barnabas mentors Saul on their first missionary campaign, yet relinquishes his leadership position when Paul is mature enough to find his own way.

Our last sight of Barnabas? Standing up for John Mark who needs another chance to rebound from an earlier failure. How typical of this man.

I wish the larger world of our day saw in Christians a more Barnabas-like spirit of generosity, encouragement, and mercy.

9. Appreciates that suffering is part of faithfulness to Jesus. "I will show him how much he will suffer for my sake," God says of Saul of Tarsus. "Count it all joy (if you suffer)," writes James. "He has given you the privilege to suffer for him," writes Paul.

"Everything I know that's important," a friend said to me recently, "I learned in suffering. Suffering comes from many sources—even our own stupid mistakes. But whatever its source, the transforming believer does not complain, does not seek pity, does not become embittered. Rather he listens; he trusts; he offers his experience for the benefit of others.

10. Is eager and ready to express the content of his faith. Allow me to differentiate between those who select times to "do evangelism" and those who are more likely to express their faith in the serendipitous events and encounters of everyday life. Of course, both are valid.

The transformed Christ-follower seeks, even prays for, opportunities to arise in the most natural of ways to communicate one's devotion to Christ and his capacity to offer a new way of life.

11. Overflows with thankfulness. And that implies prone toward cheerfulness.

Some of us (me, for example) needed to learn the exercise of thankfulness. Our default pattern is to simply receive, to take, as if we are entitled and deserve the generosity of others.

But now and then comes along that unusual transforming person who literally walks through the day looking for things to be thankful for. With each expression of thanks, they press value on what someone (or God himself) has done. They believe that no human transaction is complete until it is covered with appreciation.

12. Has a passion for reconciliation. This might be the highest characteristic of maturing believers. They bring people together. They hate war, violence, contentiousness, division caused by race, economics, gender, and ideology. They believe that being peaceable and making peace trumps all other efforts in one's lifetime.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," Robert Frost wrote. He could have been describing the transforming Christian who is mightily stirred into action when he sees those dividing walls that separate people, each of whom was made uniquely and loved by God.

It is here that you see Jesus living in others. You see his eye on the one others have ignored. You see him lifting the fallen one, elevating the insignificant one. What an incredible example he is to exploitive and arrogant people who walk through every day dividing and diminishing people all about them. The transforming Christ-follower knows this natural human tendency and seeks God's power to replace it with another tendency: redeeming, healing love.

Let me sum this up.

There are Marines, and you know them when you see them. They bear the evidence of a remarkable transformation. And then there are Christ-followers, and among them you see the occasional mature, transformed follower of the Lord. And you know them because, as you draw closer, you see Christ in them.

Gordon MacDonald is editor at large of Leadership Journal and chancellor of Denver Seminary.