The New Year has come, and many of us have optimistic goals of change. A new year means the hope of a new beginning, of becoming better than we were last year. Yet we know that real change rarely happens. Our resolutions usually perish after their first week.
Why is lasting change so difficult? The Gospel we confess promises to change lives, making people more like Christ. So why do we struggle to realize any fruits of this promise? Why is there a gap between what the gospel promises and what we actually experience?
Forgetting the Gospel
We fail to experience lasting change when we forget one of the vital aspects of the gospel:
1. We forget our gospel identity. This has two parts. First, we underestimate the presence and power of our indwelling sin. We fail to realize that our biggest problem exists within ourselves, not outside ourselves. Second, we forget who we are in Christ, and we frame our identity in terms of our problems. This causes us to root our identity in our personal performance rather than in God’s grace.
2. We forget God’s provision for us. 2 Peter 1:3 says that God has given his people everything necessary for “life and godliness.” This means that in Christ we have everything we need to live a changed life now. The power of this changed life is Christ himself working in us and through us to make us holy. Jesus is Immanuel (God With Us) not only because of the Incarnation, but also because he lives in his people through his Spirit: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). When we have a clear sense of our identity in Christ, we can face our trials and difficulties with courage because we know that Christ is at work changing us to his likeness.
3. We forget God’s process. We fail to realize that our acceptance into the family of God is only the beginning of God’s work in us. God makes us his children first, and then calls us to a life of constant growth, constant work, and constant confession and repentance. God will do whatever is necessary to produce holiness in us, even (especially!) if it means removing our temporary sense of happiness. When faced with difficulty, it is easy to feel forgotten by God. Remembering God’s process reminds us that at the very moment we feel most abandoned by God is the time when he is clearly at work in us, using our difficulties to sculpt us into holy people.
Counterfeits of Change
These three gospel aspects–identity, provision, process–summarize how God produces lasting change in us. When we forget any of these aspects, we substitute a counterfeit gospel for the real one. While these counterfeits have many faces, they have the same characteristics: 1) they emphasize one true aspect of the gospel at the expense of all the rest, 2) they appeal to our self-righteousness, telling us our sin isn’t really that bad (certainly not as bad as other people’s), 3) they remove our need for Christ’s grace to work in us, telling us that our lives would be perfect, if it weren’t for all the sinners in our lives. These counterfeit gospels replace the true power of the gospel with our own feeble attempts to produce change. They replace the transformative power of the resurrected Christ with the anemia of a New Year’s resolution–formed on Jan 1 and failed on Jan 2.
Counterfeit gospels thrive when we forget the true nature of our sin; when we become “blind, having forgotten that [we were] cleansed from our former sins” (2 Pe 1:9). As one book summarizes, “To the degree that you forget you are a sinner, you will underestimate your daily need for Christ and the relationships in his body that are his tools of change” (12). When we forget how Christ has dealt with our past sins, we also forget how he is actively dealing with our present sin.
Finding Lasting Change in 2013
The only way to produce lasting change in us is through the true gospel. We must remember the wretchedness of our sin, Christ’s active work in us through his Spirit, and God’s determination to shape us into the likeness of his Son: “so that through [God’s promises] you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Pe 1:4).
May your New Year be full of lasting change through the true gospel of Jesus Christ!
Source: Lane, Timothy S. and Paul David Tripp. How People Change. (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2008). 1-16.