Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Life Issues

Is Real Change Possible?

I regularly see my psychologist. I come to his office and pour out my complaints, discuss my neuroses and my phobias, and sometimes expose my deepest doubts. He is a wonderful therapist. The great thing is that he is free. Norm is a colleague here at Western with his office next to mine. Recently, we have been talking about spiritual transformation, wondering if change is really possible. It’s not easy to answer. A good amount of his time is spent with believers, as well as their shepherds, working through their mess and their dysfunction. And I am working through mine.

Given the state of evangelicalism, the defeated lives of so many believers, and the moral failures of their leaders, one can understand why we talk about this. What does sanctification really mean? Some time ago, Mark Galli, editor at CT, wrote the article, “Real Transformation Happens When?” He came to the conclusion that after living a half century he wonders if Christians can make much progress in holiness. Real transformation happens in heaven.

This struck a nerve. I found a post on the blog Internet Monk, in which Chaplain Mike begins with the words, “Go Galli go!” He also finds that much of our talk of “transformation” is a case of Christian over-sell. “Our unbridled optimism about the potential for dramatic life-change and ‘impact’ owes more to the myth of progress that we’ve eagerly embraced since the days of the Industrial Revolution than it does to how the Gospel actually works in lives.”

In his post, he points the reader back to Michael Spence’s “When I am Weak.” Spence also agrees. He notes that there is this long-standing myth that there should be something different about a Christian. A look. An attitude. Something noticeable, that causes the unbelieving to wonder, “What does this person have?” The reality is that, for the most part, we really are no different. Spencer goes on to ask some vexing questions— “How can people who have the answers for everyone one moment, have no answers for themselves the next?” Why do so many ‘good Christian people’ turn out to be just like everyone else?” “Does Jesus really make us better?” Given our tendency to tell the world Jesus makes us better people, why aren’t more Christians either being sued by the rest of humanity for lying or hauled off to a psych ward to be examined for serious delusions?

So far, I’m guessing some of you are finding these words troublesome, if not heretical. Others might be quietly nodding. Spencer goes on—“You people with your Bibles. Look something up for me. Isn’t almost everyone in that book screwed up?” It brings to mind a series I once preached, entitled, “Flawed Families of the Bible.” My intention was to close the series with a model biblical example. I ended up preaching from Song of Solomon about pre-martial love. Outside of Jesus and the church, I did not have much material to work with.

What Galli and Mike and Michael do celebrate is the grace and forgiveness of God. And this is the gospel. What they underscore is that we fall down and get up…and believe. The best we offer the world is our broken lives, not our example. That’s as good as it gets. This life of faith is a battle full of weakness and brokenness. A bloody war on a battlefield—not a victory party.

But is this true? Are we consigned to live a life hopeful of victorious faith, but find it elusive at best?

If what these writers are saying is true, then my book, Under an Open Heaven, should be pulled from the bookshelves. Its basic thesis is that, with the coming and work of Jesus, the heavens have ripped open and everything is new. We are capable of living a life radically different. We can be free of old attachments. The cross, the resurrection, the ascension, and Pentecost have teamed to provide all the power we need to live transformed lives. In the words of Paul, He is “able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us” (Ephesians 3:20).

The reality is that that we do not oversell. If anything, we undersell and underpromise. A regular read of Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart is desperately needed. Here he reminds us that the grace of God does initiate a rigorous process of inner transformation. But this has to be coupled with the following—
-a vision that can see—with wide open eyes–that God is at work. His will is being done, and His kingdom is at hand (i.e the heavens are now open), and we can do the same works–and even greater-John 14:12
-an intention to live Christ and be filled with the Spirit. Without such intention, belief, and trust, there is no transformation
-a decision to act on our intentions. The decision to retrain our thinking every day as we immerse our minds and hearts in His Word; the decision to yield our wills and consent to His supremacy; the decision to work out core spiritual disciplines–like prayer and solitude, and the decision to present our bodies as a living sacrifice.

A certain part of me resonates with these writers, but my theology argues differently. The spiritual life is far more than experiencing our brokenness and celebrating His forgiveness. It’s more than “miserable sinner Christianity” (Willard’s words). It is more than a mere eschatological hope. Real change is possible in the present. Though lives do fall apart, I have seen some amazing transformations. I do hold that God has changed me. If this were not true, even therapists would have no hope.

1 Comment
  • Bud
    2:28 PM, 19 April 2018

    You are right on. As I observe those around me, and consider my own transformed life in my run to the finish, I am reminded of the words of the apostle Paul, in Romans 15. In reciting the reality and centrality of the resurrection, it is his conclusion that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain”. It is that central truth that confirms for me, daily, that I have been transformed. I stand confident of my transformed life.

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