In Jesus’s commission to make disciples of all nations, he includes “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you” (Matt 28:20). Notice that Jesus does not say that his disciples should simply inform people of his commands and then exhort them to keep his commands. Rather, they are to teach people to observe or obey what he commanded. We know it is one thing to tell someone to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano and another thing to teach them to play it. How do we go about teaching someone to walk the extra mile, to bless those who persecute them, to not be anxious about their life, to love God with their entire being, and to love their enemies? If we are to be “instructing and teaching all people with all wisdom so that we may present every person mature in Christ” (Col 1:28), what are the wise lessons of spiritual transformation?
Three Distorted Models of Spiritual Transformation
In order to teach persons to obey Christ’s commands and be conformed to his image (Rom 8), it is important to clear away misunderstandings of spiritual growth . There are three prevalent models of spiritual formation that are ineffective in bringing about Christlikeness because they are not in keeping with the way God designed human persons to live.
The first distorted model of spiritual transformation is what might be called a magic model of growth. Just like we do not understand the connection between the magician waving his wand and the rabbit coming out of the hat, according to this view we do not understand the connection between what we do and what God does to bring about growth. The idea is that God brings about change by his sovereign decree, leaving us in the dark regarding our part in the process. God says, “Let there be less desire to sin” or “Let there be more joy” and, voila, change instantly occurs. This magical view of growth easily leads to frustration and despair when persons cannot understand why God doesn’t immediately deliver them from their sin struggles and grant them more peace and joy. If it’s all up to God, then why doesn’t change happen more frequently and quickly?
The main problem with this view is that Scripture makes clear that transformation does not work this way. For instance, Jesus teaches, “Abide in me and I in you, and you will bear much fruit” (Jn 15:5). Peter writes, “Make every effort to add to your faith virtue . . . ” (2 Pet 1:5). And Paul writes, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). Since we are to “abide in Christ,” “make every effort,” and “walk by the Spirit” in order to grow, we do not simply wait around for God to magically transform us. Instead, we are invited to participate in some manner with his transformational work in our lives. But we are still left with the question of how what we do connects with what God does. This leads to the second problematic model of spiritual change.
This second model is often rooted in a recognition that we have responsibility in our interaction with God, which is true, but too many of us don’t really understand what that responsibility is and how the cooperative dynamic between us and the Spirit actually works. This misunderstanding leads to the meritorious cause-and-effect model, which goes something like this: If I do good things for God, then that obligates him to do good things for me. So, if I read my Bible, pray daily, go to church, and try not to sin, then that pleases God and he will give me joy, bless my life, and make me holy. But if I fail to do good works, then that will displease God and he will withhold blessings from my life.
This way of thinking makes spiritual growth dependent on our good works, which earn or merit God’s favor in our lives. While this describes the familiar, conditional nature of many human relationships, it is not an unconditional relationship with God who has forgiven us of all our sins and with whom there is now no condemnation (Rom 8:1). How could it be that we are saved by grace and then sanctified by earning (Gal 3:3)? Just as we cannot earn God’s gracious favor in salvation, we cannot earn his gracious favor in ongoing sanctification. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9). We are no more able to boast about our spiritual growth than we are our initial salvation. Spiritual formation on the basis of earning is a distorted model of how our effort connects with God’s transforming work.
So, if spiritual growth is not magic and we cannot earn it, then how do we become more like Christ? It can be easy to think our part in the process is simply to be more holy by trying harder not to sin. This is the willpower model of growth. It can be called “Nike Christianity” because the motto is: “Just do it!” The idea is that Jesus’s death on the cross paid the penalty for our sins and his indwelling Holy Spirit provides the possibility of refraining from sin, so now it is up to us to “Just do it!” If we fail to be joyful, peaceful, content, and not sin today, then the only solution is to exert more self-effort tomorrow. Once a pastor confessed to me that his model of spiritual growth was to try really, really hard not to sin. He would eventually sin, he would confess and repent, and then try harder the next time. He said he had been doing that for decades and felt increasingly discouraged and guilty that he was unable to generate enough willpower to live a more godly life.
Sadly, this model doesn’t lead us to increased dependence on God but increasing attempts to try to be righteous on our own, ultimately apart from God. This is what Paul calls “putting confidence in the flesh” (Phil 3:4) in order to attain a righteousness of our own making. Paul calls this way of living the Christian life “rubbish” or “dung,” something to be promptly discarded (Phil 3:8, 13). When Jesus instructs his disciples to resist temptation in the garden of Gethsemane, he doesn’t tell them to white-knuckle it. Instead, he tells them to stay awake in order to remain in dependence on God through prayer (Matt 26:41). It is not direct effort but rather prayerful surrender to God as modeled by Jesus—“not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39)—that allows us to resist temptation. While the human will and our choices are involved in spiritual growth, transformation does not occur by simply trying hard in our own very limited power to be good.
A Relational Model of Spiritual Transformation
The biblical answer to our attempts at spiritual change through magic, merit, or willpower is unfortunately easy to miss, partly because it can sound trite and cliché. To put it very simply, “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19). The key to understanding this is to realize God’s first love is not a one-and-done past event. We are meant to draw our life daily from his ongoing loving presence within us by the Holy Spirit, who cries out, “Abba, Father” (Gal 4:6). Just as a fish was made to breathe water and the roots of a plant were meant to draw life from the soil, human persons were meant to be “rooted and grounded” in God’s agape love (Eph 3:17). As God says in Jeremiah, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit” (Jer 17:7–8). This paints a picture of people who have placed their confidence in the triune God of love, and that connection is a source of life that brings growth. Yet, as we have seen in the previous three models, when we distrust God and try to find life apart from his loving presence, there is disorder and distress in the human soul. When we attempt to soothe our distress apart from God (even if those attempts are “for” God), we compound our problems. Again, Jeremiah writes, “This is what Yahweh says: ‘What injustice did your fathers find in me, that they went far from me, and walked after emptiness and became empty?’” (Jer 2:5). Or, as Augustine famously wrote, “You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”1 Since all humans come into the world fallen and disconnected from God, new birth in Christ followed by ongoing abiding in his love renews the human heart, bringing about love, joy, and peace, which begins to reorder our desires and affections around what is truly good (e.g., kindness, patience, gentleness, self-control). This is a relational model of spiritual transformation.
The relational model of growth helps us understand how we are transformed by God’s love. God’s love is not magic, nor do we earn it, nor does it leave growth up to our unaided human will. Instead, Jesus teaches that an interactive relationship with God is like nourishment from food. In resisting his temptation to turn stones into bread in order to satisfy his physical hunger, Jesus says, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). The mouth of God brings forth life-giving meaning that is meant to feed the deepest hungers of the human heart. Jesus even describes his own relationship with the Father as food: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn 4:34). Commenting on this passage, D. A. Carson writes, “There was greater sustenance and satisfaction in [performing his Father’s will] than in any food the disciples could offer him.”2 When Jesus lived his life in harmony with the loving presence of his Father, there was spiritual sustenance (cf. Jn 8:28–29) that nourished his soul like food nourishes the body. Continuing the theme of relationship with God as life-giving nourishment, Jesus describes himself as the “bread of life” such that persons will never be hungry (Jn 6:35) and “living water” such that persons will never thirst again (Jn 4; cf. Jn 7:38). Just as there are nutrients in bread and water that embodied humans require to grow and develop in healthy ways, there are nutrients in God’s loving presence that are even more essential for healthy human growth and development. Indeed, “Apart from [abiding in] me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
Receiving God’s Transformational Love
In many ways the idea that God’s loving presence is what restores and transforms the human heart should not surprise us. We know that when people—seen most clearly in children—are accepted, known, cared for, lovingly challenged, forgiven, held, listened to, noticed, understood, and so on, they tend to flourish socially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. And we also sadly know that when human persons are neglected, abused, treated cruelly, demeaned, misunderstood, ignored, resented, pushed aside, and so on, they often struggle with anxiety, fear, self-loathing, distrust, depression, anger, and hiding. Human relationships are a dim and all too often tragically broken reflection of the kind of loving relationship we were meant to have with God as well as with others. Obviously, this makes spiritual growth through relationship with God easier said than done. As David Benner writes, “Genuine transformation requires vulnerability. It is not the fact of being loved unconditionally that is life-changing. It is the risky experience of allowing myself to be loved unconditionally.”3
The love of God is the fuel that transforms us into people who routinely and easily come to observe all that Jesus commanded, but this mere fact does not transform. True transformation occurs when we, like a vehicle designed to run off fuel, actually receive God’s love in the truth of who we are and learn to “keep [ourselves] in the love of God” (Jude 21). It seems obvious to state, nevertheless I am compelled to remind you: this is a risky process that takes time. So give yourself grace. He already has.