Mythbusters: Solving the Puzzle of How People Change


Alan Stanley lectures in New Testament at BST
Alan Stanley lectures in New Testament at BST

Myth #1: God just wants us to be good people who follow the rules.

Galatians 5:1 busts that myth: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”  We are free from rule keeping.  We now live under grace.
Myth #2: That because of grace Christians can do what they like.

Galatians 5:13 busts that myth: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh.” 
Galatians 5:19-21 also busts that myth in that we are not free to live a life characterised by sin.
1 – How does it all fit together?
We can fall into the danger of emphasising one of these truths over against the other.  But we can just as equally fall into the danger of emphasising both without realising how the two fit together. Christians, in general, I think understand that on the one side we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) and yet on the other side those who are saved by grace through faith will live differently, not perfectly, but differently (Ephesians 2:10; James 2:14).
The central question is, how will we live differently?  In other words how do we change and how are we to change? The Bible makes it clear that grace changes us: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11-12)
The order is clear: grace first, change second.  Grace produces changes.  Take Paul for example, “But by the grace of God I am who I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.  No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me,” (1 Corinthians 15:10).  Another example is Barnabas who visited the new Christians at Antioch: “When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts,” (Acts 11:23).  These verses illustrate the same point: grace produces a changed life, albeit an imperfect life!
2 – How does grace change us?
So now that we understand that it is grace that changes us.  The all important question is how? What good does it do to tell a boy or a man struggling with pornography to allow God’s grace to work? What’s a woman battling with low self-esteem suppose to do if we say, “Just let God’s grace lift you up”? In the nitty gritty of everyday life these statements, though absolutely true, have no meaning for people.
The Bible’s answer is what we know as, walking by the Spirit.  Romans 8:13 says “…by the Spirit...put to death the misdeeds of the body.”  Galatians 5:16 says precisely the same thing: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The answer then to dealing with the sin in our lives is to walk by the Spirit.  
3 – How does one walk by the Spirit?
I have found the answers to this question over the years very unsatisfying. I wonder if we really understand what it means to walk by the Spirit. Someone just recently confessed to me that the answer they keep receiving on what it means to walk in the spirit is to read the Bible and pray, but “it doesn’t work,” they said. We should certainly read the Bible and pray.  The point is, that and of itself reading the Bible and praying is not walking by the Spirit. So what does it mean to walk by the Spirit? The Bible gives us the answer.  It is to live by faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:1-5).  Hence obedience happens when we trust Jesus (Galatians 5:6; James 2:14).  So to walk by the Spirit we must walk by faith.
Here’s an illustration that may help (taken from: Storms, S 2004, One Thing: Developing a Passion for the Beauty of God, Christian Focus Publications Ltd., Ross-Shire, Scotland, pp. 124-127).  It’s the story of Ulysses who attempted to defy the lure of seductive sirens (demonic cannibals) and their irresistible songs and false beauty.  Many sailors who passed the island were lured in by the sirens and were destroyed by the demonic cannibals.  Ulysses was determined to hear the beautiful songs, so he asked his men to strap him by rope to the front of the ship and the men would put wax in their ears so that none would be lured away by the song of the sirens.  Ulysses and his men succeeded to bypass the island without being ravaged to their death.  Ulysses was able to hear the beautiful songs.  One of the sirens tried to lure him by taking on the appearance of Ulysses’ wife, Penelope, to draw him closer.  While his flesh was shackled tightly to the ship and no one was killed, Ulysses soul was lured in, saying “Yes” to the temptations even though his body was kept safe.  In contrast, Jason, in search of the Golden Fleece, was wiser than Ulysses.  Jason’s plan was to bring a musician, Orpheus, who would play his beautiful songs when they passed the island of sirens in order that the men on the ship would not be captivated and lured away by the sirens.  The plan worked.  The sirens lost their capacity to entice the human heart because the music played by Orpheus was much more beautiful and alluring.  Everyone on Jason’s ship survived.
The story of Ulysses and Jason, in their bid to overcome the temptation of the sirens, is somewhat characteristic of two kinds of Christians in their battle to resist temptations: those driven by fear and uncertainty, on the one hand, and those drawn by fascination and joy on the other.  The former motivate themselves to “obey” with the constant reminder of the dreadful consequences of failure or the shameful humiliation of “getting caught”.  But, the others’ hearts are energized by the incomparable attraction of divine beauty.
The only way to triumph over the tyranny of the seductive and destructive siren-song of sin is to hear the more beautiful sound of a sweeter song, to taste the sweeter fruits of a heavenly country.  As Storm writes: “Which kind of Christian are you? Are you driven by fear or drawn by joy? Are you like Ulysses, seduced by the alluring songs of sin, but lashed to the mast of the church by the ropes of rules and regulations? Or are you like Jason, fighting the deceitful promises of satisfaction in sin, through the expulsive power of a sweeter song?”
4 –  Jesus is far more satisfying
When we face temptation, whether it be temptation to avoid an opportunity to help, serve, pray, give, go, etc. Or whether it be temptation to indulge, lust, get revenge, divide, etc. The response that glorifies God will be the one that says in faith: I believe that Jesus is more satisfying than giving into temptationWhen someone asks for our help when we are in a hurry or busy, to walk by the Spirit will mean trusting that God will be our help.  When we hear of someone in financial need, to walk by the Spirit will mean believing that Christ is our wealth.  When we are tempted to lust, to walk by the Spirit will mean believing that God will give us greater sight of who he is if we remain pure (see e.g. Matthew 5:5 and Hebrews 12:14).  The examples are endless but the point is the same.   The only way to obey God is to walk by faith.  This means broadly speaking, trusting that Jesus is greater than the temptation we are currently confronted with.  
In fact we all live by faith.  For example, if someone is dieting, how will they resist the next piece of chocolate cake that someone offers them? Answer: by having faith that by not eating the chocolate cake they will advance quicker to their goal of being slimmer.  (I use this example of cake, because our wonderful college provides morning tea daily, which sometimes includes cake!).  And what in this example gets the glory?  A slim body?
When we are able to resist temptation because Jesus is far more satisfying to us, then He gets the glory.  And that is the goal of being a Christian, that God be glorified (1 Cor 10:31).

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