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How To Be Human (Again): Change
Colossians 3:1 - 3:4
June 20, 2021
Reverend Jason Harris
Building upon what we discovered in the previous two sermons of this series, we explore if it’s possible for people to change, deep down at the heart level, and if so, what does this actually look like in practice? What is God's way of change? This sermon addresses those questions and highlights the three principles Christians should bear in mind in order to experience God's transformation in their life.
View Sermon Transcript
Over the last few weeks we've been talking about how our social skills may have gotten a little rusty over the disorienting experience of the last 15 months. We may feel a little out of practice when it comes to basic communication and, especially, conflict resolution. Even as the city reopens, we might find that we're still struggling with anxiety and fear. We're easily angered and irritated. We're impatient, and so it seems to me as we enter this next phase, we have to figure out how to be human all over again. That got me thinking because in many ways that is what the Bible is all about. Jesus not only shows us what a truly human life looks like, but he lived and died and rose again in order to make us fully human like himself. This is the whole reason why he came to renew God's image in us, to transform us into our truest selves, so that we might become the people that God has destined us to be.
Recap Of Past Two Sermons
Last week, I asked you to put your thinking caps on and to embrace your inner theologian because we tackled the critically essential, but often misunderstood, topic of sanctification. I threw a little bit more theology at you than I typically might. Even though it may be challenging, I'm going to push you again today because I think this is important, and I'm convinced that you can handle it—that should flatter you.
So here's my question for you today: Do you honestly think that people can change? Or better yet, do you think that you can change? Now yes, of course, people can make behavioral modifications—they can commit to a new exercise routine, they can stick to a new diet—but can they really change, deep down, at the heart level? Can they experience transformation of character? Can we become not just different people but new people? Or are we stuck, especially the older we get in deeply formed patterns of thought, and behavior? So the question is: Is deep lasting character change possible?
Now, this may be a topic that weighs on you because there may be aspects of your personality or your character that you really don't like. There may be even parts of yourself that you hate and you want to change, but you really haven't been able to do it. You feel somewhat defeated because you've tried. You've read the books, you've taken the classes, you've talked to the counselors, but nothing ever seems to work. You might experience some kind of temporary relief, but then you default back into your old settings, leaving you feeling not only defeated, but perhaps a little cynical. Like well, I guess, maybe change isn't really possible. Or maybe it's possible for other people, but I'm just not one of them. It just doesn't work for me. So is deep lasting character change possible? Well, I believe it is by God's grace.
Expanding On The Idea of Sanctification and Change
Today, I would like us to build on the foundation that we have laid over the last two weeks. If you weren't here last Sunday, or the Sunday before that, you might want to go back and listen to those sermons that might help you understand some of the ideas that are underpinning this message today.
But today, specifically, I'd like to explore God's way of change, with a focus on Colossians 3:1-4. So listen, as I read these words, from the Apostle Paul,
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, it's true, and it's given to us in love.
Well, let me begin with a little recap of what we covered over the last couple of weeks. We said sanctification is simply the process of being made holy, but to be holy doesn't mean you're hyper spiritual. It doesn't mean you have to be cold and distant and detached. It doesn't mean you're humorless or unapproachable. It doesn't mean you have to avoid anyone or anything that is broken out of fear of becoming tainted, but rather, to be holy simply means to be devoted to God. God himself is holy, first and foremost, because the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are fully devoted to one another. So to say that God is holy, and to say that God is love, is to point to the same reality. Therefore to be holy means to live a life of love—love for God and for others. That's all it is. To be holy means to be devoted to God. Out of sheer grace, God has devoted himself to us. He has made us the objects of his holy love, and what sets us apart, what makes us distinct as followers of Jesus is that we respond with a likewise, personal, intense, loving devotion to God because of what he has done for us by his grace. To be sanctified means to go through this ongoing process of being made holy by God—devoted to God.
To expand on that idea, we could say that the moment that you put your trust in Jesus, two things happen. Number one: God justifies you. God declares you, despite your sin and guilt, to be innocent and righteous in his sight, not because of who you are, or what you've done, or even because of what God has done or will do in you, but he declares you to be righteous solely on the basis of who Jesus is, and what he has done for you through his life and his death, and his resurrection.
There are some who would object to justification and would say, well this declaration is nothing more than a legal fiction because God is declaring something to be true that is not. He's saying that you're righteous when you are not righteous, but no, this is not a legal fiction because at the same time God not only justifies you, he sanctifies you. He not only declares you to be righteous, he begins the process of making you actually righteous.
In past, present and future, sanctification is guaranteed because it doesn't depend upon you making yourself holy. It depends upon God and what he will do. He will finish the work that he has begun in you; therefore, you can count on it. To be sanctified, to be holy, simply means that we grow wiser as human beings, we become more loving, because we live a life of devotion. When God sanctifies us, when he makes us holy, he frees us from those unhealthy, sinful destructive patterns of thought and behavior and he forms within us Christ-like dispositions, virtues and affections. God plants within you, not the fruit of your own character, but the fruit of the Holy Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control. The overarching goal of all of this is to make you more like Jesus.
But the tricky question then is, if sanctification is the work of God's grace, then what is our part in this? Here's where we tend to fall into one of two opposite errors. Some people think, well if the call is to become holy, well then I have to do more. I've got to try harder. I have to make myself holy. But then there's others who hear that sanctification is the result of God's grace, and therefore think I don't have to do anything. I can sit back and relax and I can wait for God to change me. But both of those responses are wrong. So what's the right way to think about sanctification? Well, J.I. Packer is the one who put it best. He said that,
“Sanctification is not activism, nor apathy. It is not self reliant activism, nor God reliant passivity, but rather God dependent effort.”
You see, you're not going to change by just sitting there. There is something that you're supposed to do. You are supposed to exert yourself. You are supposed to put forth effort, but the effort that you put forth is to depend more and more on Jesus. That's the only way you're ever going to change. Jesus himself said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” We can do nothing, apart from his power at work within us. So how do we actually change? Well, we have to remain in Jesus. We have to abide in Jesus. We have to stay put in Jesus, constantly asking for his help, knowing that he will supply. Now that's the recap. That's what we talked about over the last two weeks.
Now I want to build on these concepts, and so here's the million dollar question: Okay, great, but what does this actually look like in practice? What is God's way of change? Today, I want to give you three principles for you to consider. Three principles that you have to bear in mind if you ever want to experience God's transformation in your life. Those three principles are:
Number one—remember who you are.
Number two—receive what God gives.
Number three—respond to all of God's methods.
Remember Who You Are
Let me unpack that and explain what I mean. First of all, the most important principle to experience God's way of change is: remember who you are. The key to unlocking God's change in our life is understanding our union with Christ. Very rarely does the New Testament refer to followers of Jesus as Christians. There's just a small, little handful of references to the word Christian in the New Testament, but far and away the most common descriptor of followers of Jesus in the scriptures is the term “in Christ.” To be a follower of Jesus is one who is in Christ. You see that phrase repeated over and over and over again throughout the New Testament because that is fundamentally who we are. When you put your trust in Jesus, your faith so unites you to the person of Jesus, that everything that is true of him, becomes true of you. You're united to him. You are in Christ. So if Jesus died on the cross in your place and was raised to new life, then in a certain sense, you could say that you have died. You have died to that old way of life. That old self is gone, and you have been raised to a whole new way of life in him, which means that you have received a whole new identity, and you have to remember who you are. This is what Paul is talking about then in Colossians 3:3. He says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” And then verse one, “If then you have been raised so what is true of Jesus is now true of you. Your life is now hidden with Christ and God.”
I love that expression: Your life is hidden with Christ and God. It may not be visible to the naked eye, not everyone may be able to tell, but this is fundamentally who you are now. You have undergone this transformation of identity. You are a new person. You're not just different, you're new because you are united to Jesus. You're no longer the same and that's the key. When God calls us to change, when he calls us to be holy, to devote ourselves to him, he's not fundamentally telling us what to do, but rather he is reminding us of who we already are. Paul is not telling us to try to become something that we're not, but rather, he tells us to be who we already are. Be who you already are as a result of God's grace in your life. You are a different person. You have received a new identity. Now you have to put that identity in action. Put it into practice. Reveal its truth. Change begins with the mind. We have to think upon these things. We have to remind ourselves of these truths. That's why Paul says, set your mind on the things that are above, see your union with Christ, see who you really are, and then live out of that reality.
There's a story told about Augustine. I don't actually know if this story is true. It might be apocryphal, because I haven't been able to find the actual source for this story, which I always try to do, but I'm going to tell this story anyway—even if it's not true with that disclaimer—because it perfectly illustrates this very concept. You may know that in his spiritual autobiography, Augustine was quite candid about his struggles with sexual temptation, in particular, as a younger man. Eventually, he became a Christian while he was living in Milan, and then he returned to his native home of North Africa. The story goes that he ran into one of his former mistresses, one of his former girlfriends who wanted to pick up their relationship where they had left off. She wanted to lure him back into bed, but he was completely unresponsive to her advances, which left this woman feeling rather confused.
And so she says to Augustine, “Augustine, it is I.”
But Augustine responds by saying, “Yes, but it is not I.”
She's saying, “Augustine look, it's me! It's me! Don’t you remember me?”
Augustine responds by saying, “Yes, but it is not me. I'm not the same person anymore because of the work of God's grace in my life. I received a new identity and now I have to live out that identity that I had received.”
You see that's the key to experiencing God's change in our life. We have to remember, first and foremost, who we are now, because of the transformation he has wrought for the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
Receive what God Gives
Secondly, we have to receive what God gives. Both justification and sanctification are the result of God's grace. One happens in an instant, the other is an ongoing process, but they are both the result of God's grace. It's not as if one is up to us and the other is up to God. No, both becoming a Christian, as well as growing as a Christian, are the result of his power at work in our lives, which means that sanctification, this process of being made more holy, this process of being made more like Jesus, is not something that we achieve for ourselves, but it is something that we receive. This is so hard for us to understand because almost every other aspect of our life, especially in the 21st century, is about what we can do for ourselves. How do we change ourselves? How do we work on this project of the self.
The problem, as result, is that we reverse the logic of the gospel, and we turn the gospel into an achievement. We think the gospel is: if I live my life this way, God will love me. Isn't that how we think about it? If I live my life just the way that God wants me to then he’ll love me and accept me. I obey, therefore, God accepts me. But that completely reverses the logic of the gospel because the gospel tells us, no, God already loves you, in and through the person of Jesus Christ, and now he calls you to live your life this way. It's not, I obey, and therefore he loves me, but he loves me and therefore, I obey. Do you see the difference there? Because if you don't get that, then you will constantly turn your relationship with God into a kind of performance, you'll be hopelessly trying to win his love and approval by doing all the things that you think you're supposed to do, but you'll never feel like you really measure up. When you fail, you will fall into these periods of despondency and despair because you failed. You did it again. You'll never be able to escape the spiritual performance treadmill that fills you with pride and superiority when you're hitting all your marks and everything is going well and then periods of despondency, and even despair, when you just can't seem to measure up.
But you see, that's not the gospel. The gospel is God already loves you, he already accepts you and now he calls you to live out a new life because of what he's already given to you by his grace. That is what turns the duty of the Christian lives into delight. You strive to love and serve and please God, not out of this dry sense of obligation, but rather out of gratitude and joy from what you've already received from his hand. You serve him not because you have to, but because you want to. God is not giving you some kind of impossible standard to live up to, but rather a promise to live into. That's what turns this call to living a holy life into a gift rather than a burden.
So here's the test. What do you do when you fail? Look, we're all going to stumble and fail in this life so when you make the same mistakes over and over again, when you try God's patience, when you fail to make any progress, when you do the one thing that you promised you would never do, how do you respond? Do you run and hide from God in guilt and fear and shame? Do you just hang your head and think to yourself, I did it. How could God ever love someone like me? Or instead of running and hiding from God, do you run towards him for help?
You realize that Jesus is not standing over you every time you stumble with a scowl on his face. No, he is there to bend down to pick you up to put you back on your feet again, and try again. You see, that's the test. How do you respond to failure? If failure drives you away from God within it probably means that you fundamentally misunderstood the logic of the gospel. God loves me; therefore, I obey. In Philippians 2:12-13 draws this out beautifully. Listen to the Apostle Paul here. He says,
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
You see that he refers to you, to me, to all of us as the beloved. You're already the beloved of the father because of what Jesus has done for you by His grace. Now he tells you to work out your salvation. He's not telling you to work for your salvation. He's not telling you to earn it. Work out your salvation, work out its implications in your life with fear and trembling. The fear here is not the fear of what God might do to you. No, it's the fear of what you might do to him. He loves you. He's gone to incredible lengths to make you his own. He's adopted you as his child, brought you into his family and if you don't work out your salvation in your day to day life, well, then you're going to bring sadness to his heart. You're going to break his heart. The fear here is not what God will do to you, but what you might do to him when you scorn his love. So work out what God is working in. Ultimately, it is God who works in you to will and to work for his good pleasure. Augustine again said that God commands what he wills, but he gives what he commands. God will never ask you to do something for him without giving you the power to carry it out. You have to receive what God gives. You have to rely on him for the work that he is working in you.
I had a conversation with a friend this past week about the sermon I delivered last Sunday, and he told me that there was a period in his life when he was consumed with jealousy. Constant, haunting, painful jealousy. What made it worse is it was jealousy of a very close friend who was getting all kinds of career opportunities and he hated this feeling, this feeling of jealousy toward someone that he loved. Then three times in one week, he was reminded of the story of Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler. He heard it in the sermon, he heard it on the radio, and a friend mentioned it to him.
As he was praying one day about this jealousy in his heart, he was reminded of Jesus' words to the rich young ruler, and in his mind's eye, he heard God say, “That's you. You're the, you're the rich young ruler, except the one thing that is preventing you from following me is not your wealth. It's your jealousy. It's your jealousy that has got to go. It's holding you back. Your jealousy has got to go.”
But he felt like he could not get rid of it. Maybe that's happened to you, there's jealousy in your heart. There's anger in your heart. You're holding a grudge. You can't forgive someone you know that you can, you know that you should, but you can't do it. What do you do then? Well, as he prayed about his jealousy, somehow, someway, he felt like God was saying to him, you can't do it, but I can.
Just like I described in last week's sermon with Aslan the Lion, reaching in with his claws to peel off the dragon skin from Eustace, this friend felt like God was reaching in with his claws in order to rip the jealousy out. He described it like this. He said for a good solid half hour in between tears, it felt like God was pulling out of him, the thickest blackest tar. What an unbelievable image. But it felt like God was ripping the jealousy out of him. Then it was gone. Now, of course, like all of us, that jealous tendency continues to come and go from time to time, but now it's different. Instead of sitting under a thundercloud, it's like a passing shower. You see, that's the thing, we have to receive what God gives. This is God's work. God is at work in you to will and to work for his good pleasure. So cry out to him for help, ask him to do for you what you cannot do for yourself. We cannot ultimately change ourselves. We need him to do the changing.
Respond To All Of God’s Methods
And so then thirdly, we have to respond to all of God's methods. Respond to all of God's methods. Here's another place where people often get stuck. We're all tempted to oversimplify, aren't we? It makes life easier. When it comes to change, we're always trying to find some kind of silver bullet. We want to look to some truth, some principle, some spiritual practice, or discipline or technique as a cure all. What do we tell other people? Just read your Bible and pray. Just do quiet time every day. Just get out of your own head and serve other people. Just be part of an accountability group. Just surrender yourself to the Holy Spirit. But you see, if you're using the word just in front of any of those statements, well then more than likely we have oversimplified how change works, and that's especially the case if there is one particular way in which God brought about change in your own life. We're all prone to do this. The Counselor David Polson puts it like this, he says,
“That one partial truth may have really helped you in the past, but when one truth morphs into the truth, with a capital T, the whole truth, well then it becomes an axe to grind. It becomes a panacea, a cure all. As this happens, it slides in the direction of a magic formula, a secret to be discovered, not the plain, simple wisdom of God. A word that really helps some kinds of people can prove unhelpful, even misleading and destructive, to people who need one of the other kinds of help that God gives.”
The scripture portrays the transformation of our lives in a range of colors, not just one. God's sanctification in our lives is multicolored, and so if we view sanctification in a monochromatic kind of way, well, that's sort of like saying, God changes you by using the color red and only the color red. But that's not true. Sometimes God likes to use green and yellow and blue and orange and purple. There's no one size fits all. We see that especially in the ministry of Jesus. If you look at Jesus, there's no one formula for how he approached people. Everyone is different. Every encounter with Jesus is unique, unscripted, unpredictable. The fact is that God uses a variety of different means to reveal to us the truth of who we are in Christ, and to rip out those destructive patterns of thought and behavior and to instill new virtues within us. He uses a variety of different means to convict us of our sin and to inspire us with hope. So, we have to respond to the full breadth of means that God uses. Sometimes God works directly through the power of the Holy Spirit. He removes old desires, and he instills new ones within us. Sometimes God uses reading and especially the preaching of the word, to change us. We could probably look back on times in our lives where a particular verse or passage of scripture struck home, or there was a sermon that was especially meaningful to us, even though everyone else thought it was worthless. A time of worship or prayer, a helpful conversation with a wise friend, sometimes challenging life circumstances—these are all the means that God can use to wake us up to the reality of who he is, and teach us to live differently. There's no one size fits all. There's no boilerplate formula, and therefore, we have to respond to all of God's methods. This is what I mean by God dependent effort. There is something that you're supposed to do. Yes, you should engage in various spiritual practices and disciplines as long as the very purpose of those practices or disciplines is to put you in the pathway of grace.
Here's the problem as one person has put it. We must always be on guard against the pursuit of a spiritual practice that is distanced from the gospel, such as spirituality may have the “appearance of godliness,” but is in fact, denying its power. According to 2 Timothy 3:5. Hard work and effort that does not spring from the gospel of grace will not sanctify you, it will strangle you. Hard work and effort that does not spring from the gospel of grace will not sanctify you, it will strangle you. The purpose of all spiritual practices is simply to aid us in our connection with the one who lived and died and rose for us. So yes, there is something you're supposed to do. Don't just sit there. Do something. Exert yourself. Put forth effort, but the effort you put forth is to depend on Jesus more. So you gotta put yourself in the pathway of grace. Put yourself in a place where God's love for you can hit you afresh, because that's the only way that you'll experience the renewal of our minds that leads to transformation.
Let me close with a simple story that helps illustrate this point about a wemmick named Punchinello. Now wemmicks were small little wooden people, carved by a woodworker named Eli, who lived on top of a hill overlooking their little village. Every wemmick was different, but all day, every day, the wemmicks would give each other stickers. Some of the wemmicks were pretty; they had smooth wood and fine paint. Others were talented; they could lift big sticks or jump over tall boxes. Then there's others who were smart; they knew big words. These wemmicks, they all got gold stars. Whenever they got gold stars, it made them feel so good. It made them feel so happy. Then there were other wemmicks who were not quite so talented, not quite so pretty, not quite so smart and whenever they did anything wrong, they got gray dots. One gray dot after another. Punchinello was a wemmick like this. Whenever he did something wrong, he was given a gray dot and eventually, other wemmick just started giving him gray dots for no reason at all, just because he already had so many. He deserves lots of dots, they would all agree; he's not a good wooden person. After a while Punchinello started to believe them. He said, I guess I'm not a good wemmick after all.
Then one day, he met a wemmick who was unlike anyone he had ever met before. Her name was Lucia and she didn't have any stars or dots. It wasn't that people didn't try to give her stickers, they did, it's just that the stickers didn't stick. Some people admired her because she didn't have any dots and so they tried to give her a star, but then as soon as they placed the star on her, the star would fall off. Then there's others who were sort of angry that she had no stars, so they tried to give her a gray dot, but the gray dot wouldn't stick either. Punchinello thought, you know, that's what I want. I don't want to have anyone's marks on me.
He asks Lucia, “Well, what makes you different?”
She said, “Oh, that's easy. Every day, I go and see Eli.”
Punchinello thought, “Well what difference does that make?”
She said, “Well try it yourself and you'll find out.”
So one day, he strikes up his courage to climb that hill to go see Eli and when he arrives, Eli addresses him by his name, Punchinello, which catches him by surprise.
He said, “You know my name,” the little wemmick asked?
“Of course I do. I made you.”
Eli stooped down and picked him up and set him on the bench.
Hmm, the maker spoke thoughtfully as he inspected the gray circles. “Looks like you've been given some bad marks.”
“I didn't mean to, Eli. I really tried hard.”
“Oh, you don't have to defend yourself to me, child. I don't care what other wemmicks think.”
“No, and you shouldn't either. Who are they to give stars or dots? They're wemmick just like you. What they think doesn't matter, Punchinello. All that matters is what I think and I think you're pretty special.”
Punchinello laughed. “Me, special? Why, I can't walk fast, I can't jump. My paint is peeling. Why do I matter to you?”
Eli looked at Punchinello, put his hands on those small wooden shoulders and spoke very slowly, “Because you're mine. That's why you matter to me.”
“Well, I came because I met someone who had no marks,” Punchinello said.
“I know she told me about you.”
“Why don't the stickers stay on her?”
“Because she has decided that what I think is more important than what they think. The stickers only stick if you let them.”
“The stickers only stick if they matter to you. The more you trust my love, the less you care about the stickers.”
“I'm not sure I understand.”
“You will, but it'll take time. You’ve got a lot of marks.”
“For now just come see me every day, and let me remind you how much I care.”
Eli lifted Punchinello off the bench and set him on the ground.
“Remember,” Eli said as the wemmick walked out the door. “I made you and I don't make mistakes.”
Punchinello didn't stop, but in his heart he thought, I think he really means it. When he did, one single gray dot fell to the ground. You see, this is how change happens in our lives. It's not the whole of it, but it's the heart of it.
God is holy and he calls you to be holy. By His sheer grace, he has made you the object of his holy love and what sets us apart, what makes us distinct, what makes us different is that we respond with a personal intense loving devotion in return. To be holy simply means to be devoted to God. Therefore, in order to become holy, to be sanctified to experience God's way of change in our lives, first and foremost, we have to remember who we are. You're not the same person anymore. As a result of God's grace in your life. You are in Christ. You have undergone a fundamental transformation of your identity, and now God is simply calling you to put it into practice, live out that reality, in your day to day life. Remember who you are and receive what God gives. This is not your work. It is God's work in you. Work out what he is working in, constantly calling out to him for help and he will supply. God gives whatever he commands, whatever he asks you to do, he will give you the power to do it, so rely on him. So yes, do something. Put forth dependant effort and respond to all of God's means that work in your life. Put yourself in the pathway of God's grace. Put yourself in a place where you can be hit afresh with his love because that's the only way you're ever going to change.
Let me pray for us.
Father God, as we consider our own lives, we realize that oftentimes we may feel stuck in deeply ingrained habits, and ways of being from which we cannot free ourselves no matter how hard we try. Help us not to be disillusioned. Help us not to get into cynicism or despair, but to look to you in hope, because you are the one who ultimately transforms and changes us. Help us to know who we are in Christ. Help us to see that you're not telling us to become something that we're not but to be who we already are by your grace. Help us to receive what you have to give, knowing that you are the one who will finish the work that you have begun in us and help us to be responsive to all of your various means of bringing about change in our lives, recognizing that there is no silver bullet. But everything we do, at all times is a response to your holy devotion to us. We ask this in Jesus' name and for his sake. Amen.