Transformation is the evangelical mantra of our times. Everyone either hopes for it or promises it. Transformation of self. Transformation of church. Transformation of culture.
Faithful readers of this column know such talk makes me nervous, and I've not hesitated to puncture some of the inflated rhetoric surrounding the word. But as my loving wife is not hesitant to point out, I sometimes seem more interested in being provocative than in being clear. Fair enough—and that's only one of my character flaws. So let's see if I can be more clear.
(I fear, however, that being clear will only result in my being even more provocative!)
Whenever I suggest that transformation should not be main motive of the Christian life, many reply, "What's the point of being a Christian if it's not going to make a difference?" Or as one commenter put it, "Okay, so we just can't expect much to happen. … I'm off to the golf course." (That's not a bad suggestion, actually. Because golf, which I absolutely love, is one of the most useless sports ever invented. There is no justification for playing it. All of which fits perfectly with what I'm about to say about lack of self-justification).
To those who wonder what good is Christian faith if it's not going to make a difference, I reply: If you're a Christian mainly because you want to be changed, that's a problem. If you've given your life to God mostly because you are tired of yourself and want to be a different person—well, that may suggest you're merely using God to fix you. That's not faith. That's not love of God. That's love of self.
If you look into your heart and determine that you have given your life to God mostly because you are tired of the world and wish it were different and think that teaming up with God can make it so, then you are merely using God to fix the world you are sick of. That's not faith or love either. Again, you're just using God.
Let's be clear: No one can look at another person and say that's what's going on inside them. They might be shouting transformation talk until they are blue in the face, but in fact they are red hot with passion for God and are submitted to God's will for them and their world, transformation or no transformation. And there are those who never talk about transformation but nonetheless are in the religion game because they really don't want God but just a better self or a better world. This is a dance that goes on in the depths of the heart, and no person can judge another.
That being said, I believe we are wise to ponder this inner dynamic from time to time. But not because we want to root out selfishness and purify ourselves so we can be transformed! And not to lay a guilt trip on ourselves for not loving God as we should! Instead, the exercise is designed to help us recognize how great God is.
This examination of motive is designed to lead us to a crisis point. To put it theologically, there is no resurrection without crucifixion. And the crisis comes to a point like this: we look within and discover that despite our transformation talk, indeed our motives are corrupt, our hearts have been wicked and our wills perverse, and we recognize that we've been loving self rather than God. That dramatic incongruity—we thought we were serving God but we discover we were really serving self—is the point of crisis. It may make one cry in despair or laugh at the folly of it, but the reaction is not as important the fact of it.
The crisis is intensified, of course, when we recognize that there's nothing we can do to heal the incongruity. We don't like living in incongruity; it makes us feel uncomfortable. But if we are motivated by the discomfort, the very attempt to rid ourselves of discomfort by seeking God would only accent the incongruity—again we're using God so that we can feel better! So even our repentance is tainted.
At this point, we are apt to cry out, "Who then can be saved? Is there anyone who can not approach God weighed down by a substantial amount of self interest?" As Paul noted, "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God" (Rom. 3:10-11) I believe he meant it literally. I do, anyway.
It's at this point, that we've come to the crisis point, the point of crucifixion. We know we're as good as dead. Condemned to a life of self-centeredness. And thus condemned to a life without God.
It is only when all hope is lost, of course, that grace rears its beautiful head. Grace only emerges at the point of utter hopelessness. If there is any taint of will, any notion that there is something I can do to resolve the crisis—be penitent, pray, do good—then we're no longer talking about grace, but some sort of deal with God.
So the crisis point is not a single point that occurs at the moment when one becomes a Christian. The crisis point is life itself. And thus life itself is a grace point.
This is what the Bible means when it says we are to repent—the Greek word, metanoia, that we translate "repent" literally means "to change one's mind." In this case, it means changing our mind about what is going on, recognizing that we are not as pious or as transformed as we had imagined, that our hearts and wills remain desperately wicked, and that our situation is hopeless.
And this is brings us to a point of faith. Faith is not mentally affirming some creed, or working up some positive attitude. Faith is the other side of the coin of repentance. If repentance is recognizing that our situation is hopeless, faith if recognizing that God is our only hope. Faith thus becomes the point of grace. And the point of grace is intensified by recognizing that God has been a gracious presence in our lives during all the years of false piety, or better, is a gracious and continuing presence despite our ongoing corrupt piety.
Paul put is this way, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). At every moment we are crucified, and at every moment we are raised, by Christ, to new life. In every moment we live within ourselves, and in every moment, Christ lives in us. The crisis point is grace point.
So the purpose in helping us see how much our talk of transformation is often talk of self-righteousness, self-importance, and self-justification is to help us seea good God, one who is patient with our folly, so gracious as to embrace our to self-deceived and self-centered selves, and to use them to serve him.
And to use them to transform ourselves and our world.
Yes, I really believe in transformation! And it begins, as Paul notes, with the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2)—repentance and faith! How I think that works itself out exactly, I will attempt to explain in my next column.
But for now, I would hope we can simply stand at the point of crisis, confounded by the desperately wicked heart, and therefore at the point of grace, awash in wonder at the mercy of God.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untameable God (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Long Live Organic Church! | But what do we do if the world isn't transformed? (January 7, 2010)
How to Have a Merry Christmas | And it doesn't require you doing another blessed thing. (December 23, 2009)
Waiting for Jesus to Show Up | Moving from loving the idea of loving God to loving God. (December 10, 2009)