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How True Change Happens

How Are You Going to Change?

“Please forgive me and set me free.” I don’t know how many times I’ve prayed this prayer; it must be in the hundreds. “Father, here I am again, confessing the same sin to you again.” Every time I have to remind myself of God’s merciful character and gospel promises. I am forgiven. But I also really want to change.

Have you despaired of ever changing? Do you think you’re a lost cause? Maybe you think it’s different for you. Other people can change, but your history or temptations or problems make it different for you.

The glorious good news of Jesus is that you and I can change.

Part of the problem is we often try to change in the wrong way.

It seems our first instinct when we want to change is to do something. We think activity will change us. We want a list of do’s and don’ts. In Jesus’s day, people thought they could be pure through ceremonial washing. Today it can be spiritual disciplines or sets of laws. I’ve tried these approaches. I’ve written out little rituals to perform every morning. I’ve tried to regulate my behavior with lists. Many of these things are good in themselves, and we’ll discover the role they can play in helping us grow in holiness. But our rituals and disciplines can’t change us.

Change Is God’s Work

It is God himself who sanctifies us (1 Thess. 5:23). Other therapies can modify behavior. Drugs can suppress the more extreme symptoms of some problems. But only God can bring true and lasting change. And that’s because only God can change our hearts.

John the Baptist said, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). He was talking about Jesus. John knew he could only make people outwardly clean. But Jesus changes us on the inside through the Holy Spirit. He transforms, cleanses, and changes hearts. John was proclaiming the fulfillment of an Old Testament promise:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek. 36:25–27)

Jesus does what legalism can never do: he gives us a new heart and a new spirit. Without this inner transformation, we can never please God. People aren’t changed by therapy or analysis—not even biblical analysis. They are changed by God. God is in the business of change.

People aren’t changed by therapy or analysis—not even biblical analysis. They are changed by God.

The Liberating Work of the Spirit

Transformation is the special work of the Holy Spirit. God chose us “to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess.2:13). We have been chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:2). There was a time when labels on electronic toys often said, “Batteries not included.” You opened your long-awaited Christmas present only to find you couldn’t make it work. The gospel is a gift that comes with “batteries included.” God gives us power through the Holy Spirit to make our new life work. John Berridge put it like this:

Run, John, and work, the law commands,
Yet finds me neither feet nor hands;
But sweeter news the gospel brings,
It bids me fly and lends me wings.[1]

Our sanctification begins with the Spirit’s work of regeneration or rebirth (John 3:3–8). The Spirit gives us new life. It’s the Spirit’s life in us that enables us to trust in Jesus as our Savior (faith) and submit to Jesus as our Lord (repentance). And it’s the Spirit’s life in us that enables us to grow in our faith and obedience. The great Puritan John Owen puts it like this: “Regeneration is the putting into the soul of a new, real spiritual law of life, light, holiness and righteousness, which leads to the destruction of all that hates God. . . . Regeneration produces an inward miraculous change of heart. . . . Our minds now have a new, saving supernatural light to enable them to think and act spiritually.”[2]

I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal. 5:16–17; see 5:13–25; Rom. 8:1–17)

You Can Change

Tim Chester

You Can Change is a practical, interactive, and solidly biblical book designed to help Christians in all stages of life to find victory over sin by focusing on what God has already done in us.

The Spirit gives us the desire to do what is right and opposes our old sinful desires to do what is wrong. Our job is to follow the Spirit. Imagine a child being taught to paint by her father.[3] Her father wraps his hand around hers, guiding each stroke of the brush. The Spirit is God’s guiding hand in our lives. Whenever we want to do the wrong thing or react in the wrong way, the Spirit opposes those wrong desires. And we should be led by the Spirit. Whenever we want to do the right thing, that is the Spirit at work. We should be led by the Spirit even though the sinful nature doesn’t like it. When you feel this conflict, go with the Spirit. Walk in step with the Spirit. Follow those Spirit-prompted desires.

It’s as simple as that. Often I get nervous as I entrust young Christians to the Spirit’s promptings. I’m not sure it’s good enough. I want to give them some rules or wall them in. But that’s legalism. That’s why Paul reminds us that “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal. 5:18). Some ethical issues are complicated, but most of the time it’s clear what’s wrong (“sexual immorality, impurity,” and so on) and what’s right (“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”) (vv. 19–23). Love is the summary of it all (v. 14). The Christian life is not as complicated as we sometimes make it. Only two commands matter: to love God and to love others (Mark 12:28–31; Rom. 13:8–10). Everything else is there simply to flesh out what this love involves. The Spirit gives us a desire to love and opposes our selfish desires.

This article is adapted from You Can Change: God's Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions by Tim Chester.

[1] This verse is often attributed to John Bunyan, but Charles H. Spurgeon ascribes it to John Berridge, a preacher during the Great Awakening, in The Salt-Cellars (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1889), 200.
[2] John Owen, The Holy Spirit, abridged and simplified by R. J. K. Law (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998), 48.
[3] J. I. Packer, A Passion for Holiness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1992), 173.

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