For the last several weeks in the "Life Church", or mission-oriented bible study, that I help lead, we have been going over the conversion testimony of the Apostle Paul as described in Acts 9, Acts 22, and Acts 26, and the reality of transformation. There is a LOT to reflect on in these passages, and much that is deeply encouraging and helpful for every single person on earth in every single situation that could possibly be experienced. In other words, it is relevant to you, so I hope you will read this post, and more importantly, those passages in the Bible.
But I first wanted to be clear about my own transformation for new readers, or maybe even just as much for old ones. I don't necessarily want to be specific about the events surrounding my testimony, but rather the nature of it, so that there is no confusion as to what happened and what it means.
Before 2002, I was the spiritual equivalent of a homeless man on the street with a bag of junk, a shaggy and unwashed face, and a piece of cardboard that said:
"HUNGRY, PLEASE HELP."
That may surprise you, but it is true. More in my context, it probably said something like:
"ARROGANT, SELF-CENTERED, UNSATISFIED FRAT GUY."
Same thing. I "became a Christian" in the context of the proclamation of the Gospel by a pledge brother in my fraternity and the fellowship of a ministry specifically established to bring Jesus to the often stereotyped world of Greek students on college campuses. When I say I "became a Christian", there is a lot that I do NOT mean by that. Please hear me on this. I do not mean that I got more involved in the activity of religion or Christianity or fellowship (although I did). I do not mean that I sought the comfort of God, religion, church, and loving Christian people in the midst of suffering or loss of life (although I did). I do not mean that I came to an intellectual assent and understanding of the truth claims about Jesus as revealed in the Bible (although I did). I do not mean that I had an emotional experience at a conference or a camp or heard a sermon or sang songs that moved my heart in a way that led to a voluntary response (although I did). I do not mean that I became convicted to think more about others and less about myself and was driven to a life of service (although I did). I do not mean that I realized my experience of church as a child was a really good foundation that I should reacquaint myself with as an adult (although I did).
What I mean is that the Holy Spirit of God - through the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the once-for-all message that God came in Jesus and lived a perfect life, died as my substitute on the cross securing my forgiveness, and rose from the dead to give me hope and assure my forgiveness - miraculously changed my heart and gave me new life. Not "new" like a new suit on the same man. "New" like a new man in the same suit. That's what I mean.
The other things are true, but they are in the periphery of my testimony, not at the center. I am clear about this in my own life because I know that for you (Christian or non-Christian) there is a grave risk of misunderstanding the meaning of the Bible, the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and the nature and purpose of the modern church and the Christian religion because of lack of clarity on this reality in people's lives. This type of misunderstanding is happening every day in classrooms, bookstores, websites, coffee shops, boardrooms, bars, and churches all over the world. It is tragic and eternally dangerous. I don't want it to happen here.
The "miraculous change" that I experienced was completely outside of me. I contributed nothing to it. What that means is that if you are trying to experience God-centered transformation, for the purpose of comfort, or joy, or moral correction, and you are doing it primarily by involving yourself in religion, or acquiring knowledge through reading, or singing worship songs at church, or hanging out with nice people, you are not going to get there because you will be missing the forest for the sake of the trees. Or, if you are avoiding religion, or reading, or worship, or nice people because you think they won't get you where you want to go (which is true), and are chasing after money, power, or sex for joy and satisfaction, and are expecting transformation through cosmetic surgery, deodorant soap, new clothes, therapy, or a financial windfall, you will be disappointed. Greatly. Forever.
As with Paul, real transformation happens through the word, and person, and work of God in Jesus Christ, and no other way. All we can do is put ourselves in the trajectory of that word, person, and work, and seek and trust the Holy Spirit to transform us in His perfect timing. Like with Paul, sometimes we never even know that we are in that trajectory. More often though, it just so happens that church, religion, reading (specifically the Bible), worship, fellowship, and service to others is the right trajectory for this transformation. But it is not the source of it. It would be very difficult for me to give a more clear explanation of how to rightly put yourself in this trajectory without mistaking the context for the source of transformation itself. That is essentially the same as asking, how do I live the Christian life best? There is not an easy answer. So I will not try in this post. Until I do, what I would recommend is to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit as he reveals the person and work of Jesus Christ to you in the Bible, then get involved in a gospel community (church) and think about others as more important than yourself in every context of your life. That will be a good start.
Instead, what I want to do here, is regurgitate to you some VERY helpful observations from John MacArthur, in a sermon series preached in 1973, as to the characteristics of a transformed life. These are from the perspective of Paul's experience and the texts in Acts 9, Acts 22, and Acts 26. Hopefully, these observations and characteristics will encourage you, convict you, and either begin, continue, or confirm real Holy Spirit transformation in your life. Nothing is more important.
#1 FAITH IN A SAVIOR
If you are transformed, you have faith in a Savior. Not faith in an idea, not faith in a religion, not faith in your performance, not faith in an event, not faith in your family, not faith in a job, not faith in a bank account, not faith in a community, not faith in a toy, not faith in food. Faith in a person. Jesus. God. Man. Cross. Empty Tomb. Lord. Savior.
Our culture tries so many things for transformation. And none of them are Jesus, so none of them work. Some people get a face lift so that physically they are transformed; a new person, right? Wrong. Ever heard of Michael Jackson? Some people say education transforms. Teach people more stuff. The only problem is, you teach a sinful person more stuff and they just become more sophisticated in their ability to hurt other people. What about soap? MacArthur says, "Will a new deodorant soap do it? Will a new deodorant soap transform us like they say? Listen to Jeremiah, he knew all about soaps. You didn't know that did you? Jeremiah 2:22, listen to what he said: 'Although you wash yourself with soda and use an abundance of soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, declares the Sovereign LORD.' Soap doesn't do it."
Some try discipline, some try therapy, counseling, some hope for financial windfalls. Not gonna do it. Even love, brotherhood love, will fall short. Jeremiah 9:4 says, "Beware of your friends, do not trust your brothers. For every brother is a deceiver, and every friend a slanderer."
I'm not trying to say don't trust your friends and don't take a shower. I'm saying don't expect to be transformed in these ways. None of them offer lasting transformation. None of them can die for your sins. None of them can save. None of them are Jesus.
#2 FERVOR IN SUPPLICATION
A truly transformed person will seek God continually and passionately in prayer, as an expression of dependence, among other things. Paul did this almost immediately after his experience on the Damascus Road, and didn't cease. As MacArthur says, it should be harder for a Christian not to pray, than it is to pray. Isn't that convicting? It should be harder to get to work without having prayed, knowing the millions of temptations and opportunities that are in front of you that day, than taking the 30 minutes or so in the morning to earnestly and quietly seek God in prayer. What if we did this? What a movement of God and the Holy Spirit there would be if we demonstrated our transformation daily in the act of dependent, warrior-like prayer. For the nations, for the poor, for the unsaved, for the hurting, for the spiritually blind, even for the healthy and wealthy, who like I heard from George W. Bush last week, need to be reminded about their need for God so that they don't get lazy and worthless as Christians. God is waiting to work through and in our prayers! Oh, what if we prayed. Lest our lack of prayer demonstrate that we are actually not truly transformed people. God forbid.
#3 FAITHFULNESS IN SERVICE
As we read in Acts 22:10, Paul immediately after his conversion asks, "What shall I do?" Wow. Immediately. Are we like this? Do we demonstrate our transformation by immediately serving God and his people? This is very convicting. MacArthur further convicts us when he describes the "some day" file that the God of the universe likely keeps. Some day we will serve, right? Not now, but some day, when we are settled. Or when we have our stuff together, or when we are better prepared, or when we are more educated, or when we aren't so busy, or when we are married, or once we have a family, or once our kids are grown or out of the house, or once we are retired, or.... Can you relate? Listen to this from J0hnny Mac:
"Lord, I'd like to teach a class of people. I'd like to start a Bible study, but you know as soon as I get over the hump on this new job, and somebody...some day. I'll put that one right over there, some day. I imagine that thing could fill all eternity, that some day file. God isn't interested in some day. I've always said this, God doesn't care about your future. Did you know that? You say oh that's heresy. No, it isn't, because you'll never live in your future. Why should he care about it? You'll live right now. Don't go to God and say some day God I'm going to do this, some day, some day, some day. That never happened. You never get there. God wants your love and the investment of your life now."
So why don't we serve right now? Well there are many reasons, I think. We're lazy. We're selfish. We have a lack of urgency to the need in our world. We have a lack of confidence that we can actually contribute, or maybe a lack of confidence that we will know what to do, or how to do it. You don't know how to drywall (I don't) so you don't volunteer with an inner-city ministry that rebuilds and refurnishes homes for the poverty stricken to help develop a safe and prosperous neighborhood. Right? Also, we lack control when we serve, so we don't like it. We want to control the results, who we are helping and how they are being helped. We don't like the idea that God is in control and is ultimately the one glorified in our service, and is the one who provides the strength anyway.
Or, we might not serve because we are not transformed. Oh, God forbid. I pray that once we realize, or are reminded, that we are essentially saved to serve, and not saved to loaf, as J Mac says, then we will respond by demonstrating our authentic transformation, and likewise see God change the world through us, one simple act of selflessness at a time.
#4 FILLING OF THE SPIRIT
This could get weird. But the Christian church as a whole could would do well, I think, to embrace the mysterious a little more. The Cross is foolishness. What we believe is scandalous. We didn't make this stuff up and we certainly cannot control it. There is a book that is the perfect, inerrant, inspired, authoritative word of the God of the Universe? Really? Almighty God came to earth as a baby? From a virgin? He was fully God and fully man, lived with temptation but never sinned? He willingly gave up his life, was crucified on a cross, accomplished for us forgiveness of sins, and then rose again from the dead? And he's coming again on a white horse? Yep, that's what we believe.
Al Mohler says, "We believe that God, the one true and living God, spoke words through rotten tooth, desert tribesmen, that we are obligated to receive as God’s own word today, and we’re going to preach it! These guys wore sheepskins! Wandering around the wilderness, and we’re gonna get up in the year two-thousand and ten, and say, here, now, is the Word of God. If you don’t feel that scandal, you don’t get it! If you do feel it, and it feels right, nothing is going to be a problem for you."
Part of being filled with the Spirit, I think, is embracing the scandal, and in turn embracing the Spirit power that comes through it for the salvation of people. A little bit of mystery and scandal and filling with God's Spirit shouldn't be that hard to embrace for us once we realize the whole message is foolishness anyway, and in own our strength we could not make it power unto salvation. If we do embrace the Spirit in this way, we will very likely see how important and necessary a demonstration of our transformation it truly is.
What being filled with the Spirit actually means, as observed by MacArthur, is an issue of control and power. Instead of our control and having an illusion of power by our strength, as we yield control to the Spirit he empowers us. For the Christian, you are either quenching or being filled every day, for your whole life. What Spirit transformation does in your life is refine what is useful, eliminate what isn't, and replace what isn't with what is. Look at Paul. He was a natural leader. He was using this to persecute Christians; Jesus refined this to make him the most influential Christian to ever live. He was also full of hatred. God eliminated this and gave him love. What has he refined in your life? What has he eliminated? What does he need to?
This process begins at conversion, and continues for the duration of our natural life. How do we know if we are filled with the Spirit? you ask. MacArthur answers, "In every case where individuals were filled with the Spirit they'd begun to do something." What do I do? "Make it a priority every day to yield control, develop a keen sensitivity to sin, study the word of God, and avoid grieving or quenching the Holy Spirit." Not taking these suggestions, or not being willing to, could be akin to not being transformed.
#5 FELLOWSHIP WITH THE SAINTS
We like people. You got a people? Everybody has a people. These are my people, we sometimes say. Christians are no different, and there is something eternally unique about the "fellowship" of Christian people together. In Acts 9:17, God calls the disciple Ananias to go to Paul (Saul) and after some resistance, he goes, and right away, he addresses him as "Brother Saul." Don't miss this. Saul was the ringleader in the persecution of Christians. He had been "breathing murderous threats against the Lord's disciples" and reeking "havoc", a word used in the Old Testament to describe wild boars destroying a vineyard. But Ananias, knowing of his encounter with Jesus, counts him a brother. We can't possibly oversell this point. Tim Keller refers to the reality of gospel community, or fellowship, or togetherness with other believers, as "beautiful, unified difference". There is no other community like it in the world.
And if you are transformed, you long for it with all of your being. The Bible talks about the reality of adoption into the family of God, and we understand this as true and more lasting even than our own worldly families, whom we adore. You read Paul's letters and you get an overwhelming sense of his love for his fellow believers and his deep concern for them. MacArthur says, "the Christian life is a tender plant that can exist fruitfully only in an atmosphere of holiness." First time I read that I thought it was really corny. But it is such deep truth in that it address both the desire that we as transformed people should have to be with others who share our convictions, and also the necessity of it. We can not even exist fruitfully without being in an atmosphere like this. An atmosphere that is only possible with the mutual encouragement, accountability, shared beliefs (not necessarily shared personalities or interests), with other transformed people. If you do not long for this, and recognize its importance, you may not be transformed. Oh, God forbid!
The hard part, then, is balancing what it means to seek this, and experience this, and still be "in the world though not of the world." Still engage with other people, love them, and bring the Gospel to them so that they can experience the same transformation. That is another lifelong question that I'm afraid I'm going to have to refer you to old posts on this blog, and future ones, to better understand. In the meantime, may the world see our transformation as they see our love for each other in fellowship and gospel-centered community, and desire to be a part.
#6 FERVENCY IN SPEAKING
We also like to talk. We have talk radio, and talk shows, and then we get together to talk about what they're talking about on these things. There are 24 hour news networks, and around the clock sports coverage to talk about current events and draft prospects, and then there is another segment after that to talk about what they just heard and either confirm or deny that the people before knew what they were talking about. A lot of education is centered around hearing someone talk. When we get together with friends we talk to get to know each other. You go to church and you hear someone talk. In business situations we are always talking about customers, products, and sometimes just golf and the weather. Small talk. I am an introvert and sometimes wonder when everyone is just going to shut up.
Alas, that is not God's will. Paul, in Acts 9:20, immediately preached Christ. Immediately. It is perhaps the most clear evidence of a transformed life to not be able to hold back talking about your transformation. This is huge. In all the talking we're doing, how much are we talking about our transformation at the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? We (I) should seriously evaluate what the heck we're talking about, and why we're talking about it, if its not Christ and him crucified and how that applies to people. I don't think God is honored by our talking more about our temporary transformation in a new job or big bonus or a wonderful vacation than our lasting transformation in Jesus.
A notable caution here, though, is that more important than our talking about what happened to us is our talking about who Jesus is and what he did. Notice that Paul doesn't really talk only about the Damascus Road, but about the Christ who encountered him there. MacArthur said, "Now there's nothing wrong with your testimony, it's just that your testimony is relatively inconsequential in terms of the importance of the presentation of who Christ is, you see? Your testimony as a supplement is fine. Your testimony as a witness itself isn't any good at all because it's got to be more than that. All good preaching and witnessing is doctrinal. And really, you know, the church has gone overboard on people's testimonies and people's experiences and we have created, what I'm afraid, is almost a subjective approach to Christianity.
"But mark it friends, Christianity is not a subjective experience. Let me put in another step. Salvation is basically a non-experiential fact. Christianity is based on something that didn't happen in your experience. It happened 1,900 years ago. It happened before you were born. It happened outside the experience of every Christian, of every sinner, of every man who ever lived. Christianity is based on an historical fact of God's redemptive history. It is only a matter of believing in that historical fact that redeems a man. It's outside yourself. It is not subjective, it is objective."
Let's talk about it. Lest our babel about everything else indicate our lack of transformation. God forbid!
#7 FEARLESSNESS IN SUFFERING
This is probably the most difficult. And the least fun. And the most complicated. But, wow, if people saw Christians approach suffering the way Paul did, what a powerful mark of transformation they would see. Jesus told Ananias that he would show Paul how much he was going to suffer for the sake of his name. Peter tells us that if you expect to live a Godly life you will suffer. Paul describes in excruitating detail his experience of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11. This passage in Acts already speaks of plots to kill Paul, almost immediately after his conversion. We may not have the same, but it probably is not hard to think about and articulate what suffering looks like in our life, even if it is small. Are we afraid of it? Do we take courage against it? Do we rejoice in it? Do we remember that our sufferings are a personal presentation to the world of the suffering of Christ? Do we forget that God will never leave or forsake us?
You can already see how each of these could warrant its own post, or its own lifetime study. But I hope at least the mention of each has been helpful and fruitful for you. I know that it has been for me. Are you transformed? For me, these characteristics are deeply convicting, and always will be. But I know God provides the strength and grace, so I will continually put myself in His trajectory and trust Him alone for ongoing transformation, which will be evidence of the once-for-all transformation I experienced at the hearing and acceptance of salvation in Jesus.
The other side of my cardboard says:
"HUMBLED, CHRIST-CENTERED, ETERNALLY SATISFIED DISCIPLE"
What about you?