How in the World Do People Change Anyway?

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

There are three questions that everybody — I mean everybody — asks, and in some way everybody answers. I think that you can’t be a human being without asking these questions. I’ll give them to you.

The Questions We All Ask

The first one is, why in the world do people do the things they do? I mean, who hasn’t asked that question of a friend or a boss or a relative, or if you’re a parent of your child? You might ask, “Why are they fighting me at this moment?” or, “Why have they decided not to eat their peas?” or whatever the issue is. Why do people do the things they do?

The second question that flows out of that is, how, in fact, does lasting change take place in a person’s life? If you’re watching somebody do something that’s destructive, or irrational, or evil, or disobedient, or rebellious, or fearful, or depressive, you want to see change take place in their life. Everybody does. You’re always asking that change question.

And that leads to the third question, which is, how can I be an instrument of lasting change in the life of somebody else? What does it look like to encourage change in someone else’s life? And it’s helpful to realize that when we’re asking those questions, we’re not in some alien religious turf. We’re really addressing the cries of humanity. Everybody is asking these questions.

Our Need for Confession

Now, I think that there is a big market in the delusion that there are three or four keys that, if you get ahold of these, change will happen really quickly. Have you seen the parenting video? I can’t remember what it’s called, but it guarantees you that if you buy these parenting videos, your child will immediately become the fourth member of the Trinity, guaranteed. So there’s a whole raft of self-help books out there that basically offer you some kind of hope of change. The problem with those books is that in six months, if you go back to your Barnes & Noble, there’ll be a whole new set of those books because they didn’t, in fact, work.

And so I want to remind you of the fact that the Scriptures are very clear of three non-negotiable elements of change. You have to be committed to these in your personal life, and you have to be committed to minister these to others.

Here’s the first one, confession. Here’s what confession is. It’s owning personal responsibility for my words and my behavior, without excuse or shifting the blame. Now, what confession actually embraces is that the greatest dangers to me in all of my life exist inside of me, not outside of me. That’s the gospel no one wants to believe. I mean, if I’m counseling a husband and wife who have a bad, angry, acrimonious, conflictual marriage, and I ask the husband, “What’s wrong with the marriage?” what do you think he’s going to talk about? He’s not going to talk about himself, he’s going to talk about his wife.

And if I ask the wife what she thinks is wrong with the marriage, she’s not going to talk about herself, she’s going to talk about her husband. And so at that point, as a counselor, I’m out of a job, right? Because I don’t have any secrets in the room. The wife is just there to get her husband fixed. The husband is just there to get his wife fixed. Nobody actually wants my help. How can you have two utterly self-righteous people and have a bad marriage? What’s up with that?

So what you have to do in loving people is make confession non-negotiable. You can’t let people buy into the delusion that the greatest difficulty exists outside of them and not inside of them. And you want to lead people to confession. What does God want this person to see that they’re not now seeing, and how can I help them see it?

Here’s how it works. You can’t confess what you haven’t first grieved, and you can’t grieve what you haven’t seen, and you can’t repent of what you haven’t confessed. Let me say that again. You can’t confess what you haven’t grieved, and you can’t grieve what you haven’t seen, and you can’t repent of what you haven’t confessed. So if I’m committed to the inescapability, the essentiality of confession, then I am immediately committed to wanting to be an instrument of seeing in the life of the people around me. I am thinking, “What does God, right here, right now, want this person to see, and how can I help them see it?”

Our Need for Repentance

The second non-negotiable is repentance. Now, what is repentance? Repentance is a radical change in my heart that leads to a radical change in the direction of my life. So repentance is a heart thing. It’s not first a behavior thing. It’s a heart owning its idolatry, or owning its control, or owning its anger, or owning its selfishness, or owning its self-righteousness. It’s these deep, abiding issues of the heart that are played out in my behavior.

So if I’m going to help a person, it’s not enough to give them a new behavioral agenda. I mean think about this. If I’m counseling an angry man, and he gets to the point where he is standing in front of somebody and he has his fists clenched, and he says, “You should be glad I’m a Christian because if I wasn’t a Christian, I’d deck you.” Is that a good thing? The answer to that is yes. Is that enough of a thing? Absolutely not, because that’s a dangerous man. You want to ask, “What makes you so angry? Why is anger a spontaneous, natural response to you?” Because if change doesn’t take place there, it won’t result in lasting change in the way you live your life.

Our Need for Faith

Confession is non-negotiable, repentance is non-negotiable, and here’s the third essential, and then I’m going to be done. I’m going to beat the clock. It’s faith. I recognize that, because the big problems are inside of me and not outside of me, repentance and confession are counterintuitive. They’re not my natural responses to life. I then recognize that I need help because I’m not attracted to confession and I’m not attracted to repentance. Let’s be honest.

I mean, when someone points out a sin, weakness, or failure, be honest, what’s your response? Do you say, “Thank you. I’m glad you did that. Do that more for me. This is a wonderful redemptive moment”? Or do you activate your inner lawyer and begin to defend yourself? Your ears get red and your voice raises.

Confession and repentance drives me to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. I say, “I can’t do this. I need help.” And I begin to embrace that Jesus didn’t just die for my past, and he didn’t just die for my future; he died for my here and now. He died for these difficult moments where I have to face the ugliness of my own heart and the call to live in a dramatically different way. We had better start believing in the now-ism of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is not just an entrance and not just an exit. There’s a now-ism of the gospel. He has already given me everything I need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).

Why does Peter use those two words? Because he knows his audience. If Peter would’ve said, “He has given me everything for life,” it would be very easy for us to add a word, eternal life. And we would say, “Isn’t it wonderful that he’s given me everything I need for eternal life?” Well, that’s true, but that just doesn’t happen to be Peter’s topic. He has given me everything I need for godliness. What is godliness? It’s a God-honoring life between the time I come to Christ and the time I go home to be with him.

This is the road of lasting change. It’s very simple, but it drives you to the glorious grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Confession, repentance, and faith — there simply is no other way. God bless.