Is it possible to change?

One of the most extraordinary promises of Scripture is the one we hear in the prophet Jeremiah:

"This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time," declares the LORD. "I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. (Jer 31:33)

What does this promise mean for Christians, who are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit ‘in their hearts’?

The nature of progress and change in the Christian life has been one of the most controversial areas of debate amongst evangelicals over the last two centuries. Some evangelicals have felt very strongly that the New Testament calls us to a higher life or a second blessing, bestowed on us by the Holy Spirit. Others have felt that a ‘Christian perfection’ was attainable in this life.

For most of us though the issue is not a matter of whether there is some higher state to aim for in this life but the business of getting through the grit and dust of everyday life as a disciple of Jesus Christ – life as a pilgrim in progress, in other words.

David Peterson’s new book Transformed by God is in many ways a sequel to excellent book Possessed by God, in which he showed how the Bible sees ‘sanctification’ as not a process as much as a work in us by God parallel to our justification. But Peterson does think that the Christian life involves change and transformation. This new book shows the reader in a clear and direct fashion how Jeremiah’s prophecy is fleshed out by the New Testament writers.

What then is New Covenant life like? What is it like to have a renewed heart? As Peterson writes: ‘there is the ongoing character change effected by the Spirit as believers continue to gaze at Christ and desire to share his image and glory. This transformation may not simply be progressive, because of the spiritual battle in which we are engaged and because of our waywardness and weakness. But present signs of transformation point to the ultimate experience of glorification that awaits us at the resurrection’ (p. 127).

How do we change, and help people to change? Peterson shows how Paul continually takes people back to the saving work of Jesus Christ as the motivation and the pattern for our transformation. But more than that: we are empowered for change by the gift of the Holy Spirit working in us. It is not in our own strength that we change.

In an era of self-help books and with Christian bookshops awash with unbiblical drivel on this subject, Peterson’s book stands out. All Christians, but pastors especially, need to be clear on what the Bible teaches about the nature of change in the Christian life – not the least so we can struggle honestly together, carrying one another’s burdens, as we are called to do.

David Peterson, Transformed by God – New Covenant Life and Ministry, IVP, 2012

 

Feature photo: L.C.Nøttaasen

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

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