I wanted my book on sanctification, You Can Change, to be an anti-self-help book written in the style of a self-help book! So each chapter is built around a question to ask of yourself and ends with questions to help readers work through an area of their lives they would like to change.
But the central message is that we cannot change ourselves through our own effort. Instead, we are changed by God through faith. The key is understand how the dynamic of change by faith takes place and how other disciplines (like avoiding temptation and the means of grace) fit into a faith-based approach.
Here’s how the book unfolds:
1. How would you like to change?
We were made in the image of God to reflect his glory in the world. Jesus is the true image of God who reflects God’s glory. Through Jesus we can again reflect God’s glory as we image his Son. So the change that matters is becoming more like Jesus so that we reflect God’s glory.
2. Why would you like to change?
We often want to change to prove ourselves to God or to other people or to ourselves. But this puts our glory at the centre of change and that is pretty much a definition of sin. Plus Jesus has proved us right or justified us through his death. Instead, we change to enjoy the freedom from sin and delight in God that God gives to us through Jesus.
3. How are you going to change?
We cannot change ourselves through rules and disciplines because behaviour comes from the heart. Instead God changes us through the work of Christ for us and the work of the Spirit in us.
4. What’s going on in your heart?
Our circumstances and struggles can trigger sin, but sin is caused by the thoughts and desires of our hearts.
5. What truths do you need to turn to?
We sin when we think or believe a lie instead of trusting God. Change takes place as, in response to God’s goodness and grace, we turn to him in faith. Legalism says, ‘You should not…’ Faith says, ‘You need not… because God is bigger and better than anything sin offers.’
6. What desires do you need to turn from?
We sin when we desire or worship or treasure an idol instead of worshipping God. Change takes place as, in response to God’s goodness and grace, we turn from idolatrous desires in repentance. This repentance is a continual act of turning from sin and denying self. It is often called ‘mortification’—putting to death whatever belongs to the sinful nature. Repentance is the flip-side of faith: we turn from sin in repentance as by faith we recognise that God is bigger and better than anything sin offers.
7. What stops you changing?
What stops us changing is our pride. Our pride makes us minimize or excuse or hide our sin. Or we think we can change on our own.
8. What strategies do you need to put in place to reinforce faith and repentance?
We are not to sow to the sinful nature. This means saying ‘no’ to whatever might provoke our sinful natures (which we do by fleeing temptation) and saying ‘no’ to whatever might strengthen our sinful desires (which we do by avoiding the influence of the world). Instead, we are to sow to the Spirit. This means saying ‘Yes’ to whatever might strengthen our new, Spirit-given desire for holiness (which we do through the word, prayer, community, worship, service and so on).
9. How can we support one another in change?
God has given us the Christian community so that we can change together by speaking the truth in love to one another to reinforce faith and repentance.
10. Are you ready for a lifetime of daily change?
Change is a lifelong, daily struggle that will end with an eternal harvest of holiness.
The key moves in the book, but also the key moves for anyone wanting to help others change are:
- ensuring the what, why and how of change are God-oriented not self-oriented (otherwise we will just produce more effective legalists);
- moving the discussion from merely looking at behaviour to looking at the affections of the heart;
- showing how change takes place through daily faith and repentance, and making this connection concrete for people;
- introducing the ideas of fleeing temptation and discipling life only once this foundation has been built as means to reinforce faith and repentance rather mechanisms for self-induced changed;
- showing how the Christian community is the normative context for change and how we can help one another change.
In future posts I'll unpack some of these ideas.
Tim Chester is Director of The Porterbrook Institute and a leader in The Crowded House. He is the author of You Can Change: God's Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions and co-author of Total Church: A Radical Reshaping Around Gospel and Community, both published by Crossway.