Romans 12:1-2. I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Let me ask you a question. If you knew that you would never improve in this life, would you still want to be a Christian?
Stay with me.
There is a paradox that comes with transformation. If your Christianity is just a self-improvement project, then you will probably never find the transformation that you’re looking for. Christianity is supposed to be, first and foremost, a relationship with God rooted in faith. Faith in his grace. And paradoxically, that is what brings transformation.
We don’t accept Jesus because of how he can improve our lives now. We accept him because what he claimed is true. We accept him because what he did on the cross is true. We accept him for who he is as the Christ beyond this life, not just for what he can do for us in this life. We accept him as our savior and lord, not our life coach and therapist.
Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Denton named what we’re describing back in 2005. They called it Moral Therapeutic Deism (MTD). In their book Soul Searching, they described the predominate belief system of young people in America today, MTD: there is a God, he wants us to be good, he helps us when we are in trouble, and good people go to heaven when they die. So religion exists to make us better people, to transform us, but without crucifixion. No submission. No salvation. No real sin. No need for repentance.
Why did you receive Jesus? Was it to help you over your addiction, or to take away your anger problem, or because he makes you feel good about yourself? If you received him to have a better life now…if you accept him for those reasons alone, then you’re using God. Not loving God. And so thus the paradox. Using God so that you can be transformed doesn’t produce transformation.
If only our transformation was this easy!
Why not? When we use Jesus to change it is actually just a promotion of the self-life. Self-effort. Self-righteousness with Jesus’ name attached to it.
The truth is, and the paradox is, that we only begin to change and be transformed into Christ when we rest fully on the grace of Christ, realizing that we can never produce change, may never experience change in some ways, and that change is painfully slow and tedious on this side of Heaven. Once your mind renewal starts to wrap your head around your complete inability to transform yourself, and the extremely radical nature of your salvation – that you, the ungodly, have been justified – only then will you start to see some real growth in holiness and love in your life.
The gospel and our union with Christ tells us that every resurrection (think transformation) must come through crucifixion. Crucifixion is the catalyst for real transformation into Christ. The old self has died; the flesh must be killed along with it by grace through faith. The new man has been resurrected, we must present ourselves as the new man by grace through faith.
Now we can put to death the self-effort, self-righteousness, self-improvement schemes, even the ones that are motivated by Jesus. And instead we can trust in the finished work of Jesus and our union with him as the source of our transformation, rather than trusting in our own efforts to be transformed.
I admit that this can be very difficult to differentiate in real life. And it can be very difficult to differentiate in our own hearts and minds. Maybe that’s the mind renewal that Paul is talking about in Romans 12:2. Maybe that’s the journey of “to live is Christ.”