Jay Adams, who brought a biblical revolution to Christian counselling in the 1970’s wrote: “The church has a tendency to follow the swinging pendulum of the world”.
Why do we follow the world’s pendulum? After all, surely those who trust in Christ are freed from sin’s enslavement and automatically become more like Christ, and less like the world? As people who have been crucified with Christ, surely we die daily to the person that we once were, having a new and different way of life (Rom 6:6; Gal 2:20)?
Indeed, we are instructed to resist conformity to the world and to embrace true and lasting transformation that comes only from Christ, through His Spirit who lives within us. As Paul writes to the Colossian Christians, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him” (Col 2:6-7).
All this is true. But why are we so often drawn to the patterns of this world in our real-life struggles?
Perhaps the tendency to embrace the world’s way of thinking is because believers have become less and less convinced that the Bible is sufficient for understanding and solving all the problems of life (2 Tim 3:14-17). Perhaps we spend more and more time looking at our struggles through the lens of ‘experts’, psychologists, feminism and the media, than through the lens of Scripture.
But the apostle Paul comes alongside the believers living in the pagan city of Roman and earnestly begs them to respond to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, by becoming worshipers of God, set apart for him only, and renewed in him continually:
“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 worship2 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.” (Romans 12:1)
In this text, Paul highlights three essential elements of true transformation:
- We put ourselves at God’s disposal and under his loving authority.
- We reject the world’s system and refuse to conform to its mold.
- We renew our mind in the truth of His Word, allowing his Spirit to change us (2 Tim 3:14-17).
This is how sustained and substantial transformation takes place in the life of a Christian, so that the watching world can see the fruit of what our new Master has done within us— the righteousness and holiness of God (Rom 6:14, 18, 20, 22). This is known as sanctification.
The life-long process of sanctification in a believer’s life is brought about by the ministry of the Word, blessed by the Spirit of God, which brings a Christian closer to the likeness of Christ. This transformation is about substance, not just form. Although the Bible instructs us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling”, we are barking up the wrong tree if we try to transform ourselves. “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-23).
And so, in Romans 12:1-2, Paul tells believers that we are not transformed by our feelings or desires; our efforts, hopes or moral values; our will, behaviour or positive affirmations. We are transformed by renewing our thoughts and aligning our hearts to God’s Word. Let’s explore the three essential requirements for transformation:
- We put ourselves at God’s disposal and under his loving authority.
Paul says that we are to “present our bodies as living sacrifices to God,” which is the only acceptable form of spiritual worship.
But what does “a living sacrifice” mean today?
These days we hear a lot of talk around ‘transformation.’ It often involves outward form rather than substance, and the appearance of virtue rather than reality. Very seldom is worship of God or self-sacrifice even mentioned in relation to transformation. But substantial transformation is impossible without first coming under the authority of the Lord Jesus and surrendering ourselves to Him entirely. We need to first belong to Christ.
“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal 5:24-25)
And so, whether in an individual or society, it is impossible to please God and keep in step with the Spirit, if we have not first raised the white flag of surrender. “It is impossible even to begin living the Christian life, or to know anything of true spirituality, before one is a Christian…As far as coming to God is concerned, we must all come in the same way. There are no exceptions. Jesus said in a totally exclusive word: “No man cometh to the Father but by me.” (Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality).
Paul makes a powerful appeal to those who have come to the Father through Christ the Son. He urges us to remember the fruits of God’s mercy, expressed in the gospel and the ongoing work of Christ in our lives.
And so, the ‘living sacrifice’ in Romans 12:1 is ongoing and continuous. It is also down-to earth and practical. Spiritually speaking, from the day we become Christ’s followers, we present our whole selves at God’s altar—soul, mind and body. In Ancient Greek thought, the body was thought of as unspiritual and unimportant, but Paul shows here that our bodies and our everyday lives are immensely important to God. We hold nothing back from the Lord when we become a living sacrifice.
For first century Jews and pagans, a sacrifice was a vivid image, because they brought sacrifices to the altar often. But this sacrifice was starkly different. It was a living person being brought to the altar, not a dead animal. For Jews, it brought up the idea of priestly service and holiness (Lev 1:10; Deut 15:21), remembering that a sacrifice needed to be unblemished and without defect.
And so, just as Jesus is our acceptable sacrifice and great High Priest, our lives should represent God accurately to a fallen world, like his holy priests in the Old Testament (1 Peter 2:5). Christians are nothing less than the holy priesthood of believers.
As a holy priesthood, God doesn’t just want our work or performance. Nor does he ask us to sacrifice a goat or perform a ritual. He wants our everyday living to be transformed into an act of worship. Our soul, mind, body, desires, homes, ministries, emotions, hobbies and relationships belong to him! Our families and plans belong to him. Our work and words belong to him. Our thoughts, responses and motives are his too. A living sacrifice excludes nothing.
In stark contrast, ‘transformation’ without surrendering our entire lives to Christ is like putting on a mask or dress-up costume. If we try to transform (or reform) ourselves, our changes will be, at best, superficial, and at worst Pharisaical. We will be like Ananias and Sapphira, who pretended to be self-sacrificial, but preferred to be thought holy than to actually be holy. Their blatant lie against the Holy Spirit was deeply offensive to God (Acts 5:1-11).
- We reject the world’s system and do not conform.
Secondly, Paul’s instruction, “Do not be conformed to this world,” warns us that the ‘world system’, the popular culture, its ways of thinking and acting, are in active rebellion against God. That is why the world will try to force us into its ungodly patterns and even insist that we celebrate their ungodly choices and goals for humanity. This process of conformity must be actively resisted.
Last week, we were blessed to be in Cape Town for our daughter’s 21st birthday party. She was expressing great joy at being able to celebrate with wonderful Christians and being part of a Bible-teaching church. But she also described her struggle to live as a faithful Christian at a pagan university, with constant pressure to conform to a godless way of thinking. She concluded, “It’s hard to always know what it means to be in the world, yet not of it.”
Nothing has changed. Paul warns first century believers to be wary about slipping comfortably into the world’s patterns, because they are insidious and alluring. They are hard to resist. It is much easier to go with the flow than to make the effort to renew our minds in the truth.
In reality, I wonder how many of us wake up each morning and prepare our minds for action? I wonder if we even realise that our minds are the crucible either for godly transformation or worldly conformity? We will either conform to the world or we will transform into the likeness of Christ. There is no neutral ground.
Scripture warns us that we cannot love the world and God at the same time:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).
Christians are to be molded by God’s Word, instead of allowing the world to squeeze us into its mold.
- We renew our minds in His Word.
But it’s far easier to take the line of least resistance and be squeezed into the world’s mold. That’s why I’m so glad that Paul gives us the antidote! The key is the Holy Spirit’s inside-out work of transformation, by the renewing of our minds. Daily renewal is the only way that we can escape being shaped by the world and its steady flow of foolishness and disordered thinking.
It is the Holy Spirit who renews our thinking day-by-day, as we read the Bible. He does this by:
1) Teaching us God’s standards and principles;
2) Convicting us of sin;
3) Correcting and restoring us, and
4) Training us in practical godliness (2 Tim 3:14-17).
T.C.C.T. That’s an acronym for the four-step process by which the Spirit renews and sanctifies us through the Word of God. Daily renewal is essential if we are to resist the patterns of this world and live more like Jesus.
This God-given four-step process of transformation will equip us for every struggle we may face in life, to do the good works that God has prepared for us. This biblical process of transformation is foundational to the series on “Practical Christian Living” that follows.
In the upcoming weeks, I will be exploring several common struggles of life in which Christians have a tendency to follow the swinging pendulum of the world, instead of being re-calibrated by biblical wisdom and truth.
Since I am training to become a counsellor, I am particularly struck by how easy it is for Christians to think and talk in the same way the world does, instead of looking to Scripture to diagnose our struggles and prescribe the right solutions to the problems of life.
The Christian message isn’t simply, “Trust in Jesus and you’ll be forgiven. Then wait for Christ to return to make you perfect.” Although a disciple of Christ will never be perfect in this present world, with the help of the Holy Spirit we can and should expect to be transformed, to increase in godliness and to die to sin, until our time on earth is done. This is the process of sanctification.
In this series, God willing, I hope to delve into the Scriptures concerning common struggles that many of us face, applying the four-step process for transformation in 1 Timothy 3:14-17:
- Biblical prescriptions for mental health.
- Ageing with grace.
- Just one more! Unmasking addiction.
- How men should lead their families.
- God’s goals for fruitful moms.
- Stewarding our time.
- Whom shall I fear?
Useful sources and further reading on transformation:
Jay Adams, How to Help People Change, Zondervan, 1986.
Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality, 1972.
Dr Helen Roseveare, Living Sacrifice– Willing to be Whittled as an Arrow, Christian Focus Publications, 1980.