The Challenge to Spiritual Growth
The person who wants to grow as a Christian must be teachable – willing to accept truths that contradict prior convictions. The problem with change is in the fact that people become locked into a certain way of thinking because of prejudice, a need to be accepted by peers, and/or cultural indoctrination. Due to hardness of heart over prior beliefs truth is hidden from people.
In addition, at the heart of all sin is pride, which exalts us all in our own eyes, and causes us to resist the notion that we could be wrong. Pride is the source of spiritual death; it resists change by insisting, “All is right with me.”
Finally, the devil blinds men from the truth by inciting them to unbelief. “Among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:4) This verse is referring to unconverted unbelievers who are blind to the gospel of Christ; however, even after conversion Christians are still in danger of committing sins of unbelief, not to the damning of their soul, but to the consequences of spiritual blindness.
One might wonder with so much against us, what is the chance that we will ever change? The Bible gives us great hope in the book of Acts that change is not only possible but that God has and can again perform GREAT acts of transformation in very hard and ordinary people.
The Change in First Century Jews
“When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, "Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life." Acts 11:18
To a Jew, the idea that Gentiles could be co-heirs of eternal life, sharers in the blessings of God, participants in the covenants, laws, and sacrifices of Israel would be tantamount to treason of the highest order. So the words, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life,’ would have been no small change in their thinking.
From the very beginning God made a distinction, between Himself and the false gods of all other nations, between Israel and all other peoples, “You must not bow down to their gods; … You must serve the Lord your God, … I will send my terror before you, and I will destroy all the people whom you encounter;” 23:24, 25, 27. God did not have them kill all nations but He did separate them from all Gentiles.
Throughout their history, Israel disobeyed God and compromised themselves by associating with the surrounding peoples and adopting their ways. During the times of the Judges, God repeatedly brought Israel into bondage to the surrounding nations for sinful associations. During the reign of the Kings it was much of the same, including adopting an earthly king, which was against God’s direct command. Repeatedly Israel was warned, chastened, and restored. Finally, God brought them into exile and away from the land of promise – the place of God’s greatest blessing. Into exile and captivity they went to suffer as an enslaved people, as they once were in the land of Egypt. After their return to the land under Ezra and Nehemiah, they continued to suffer hardship until the time of Christ, when they were enslavement under the merciless foot of Rome.
Every Israelite fully understood their history, the call of God to separate from Gentile nations, if even subconsciously, their guilt, and the subsequent suffering as a result of their disobedience. Israel was chastened of God over the primary sin of not separating from Gentiles for twelve hundred years, which brings us to the scene in Jerusalem, where Peter brought word to his Jewish brothers of the conversion of Gentile dogs at Caesarea. The tale of Peter that Gentiles were fellow heirs of the kingdom of God was no small matter for those Jews to embrace, and yet we read of them, “"Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life." What then does this radical transformation in the thinking of that first century group of Jews say to us today?
The Consolation for Twenty-first Century Christians
What is the remedy for the sins and propensities in the human soul that prevents us from change?
First, we should note what does not cause substantial and lasting change in sinful men. No amount of miraculous stories, visions, or apostolic edicts can change the minds of spiritually blinded sinners, unless the spirit of God is at work to change their hearts! Outward circumstances of any kind are of no help in making lasting change because men do not change from the outside in but from the inside out. A self-destructive drug addict can come to understand that if he does not change his ways he will never live to enjoy life, but if he does change it will not be for the glory of God and to lay down his self-serving lifestyle. Only God can make self-serving sinners into self-denying saints!
Second, mere education is not sufficient to transform the human heart. When Peter presented the Gospel to Cornelius, a Roman soldier he said to him, “you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea …You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power…” (Acts 10:37-38). It was not that Cornelius was hearing these things for the first time, and that by hearing these things he would be converted, it was hearing them by the Holy Spirit, which God ordained in that hour should come upon them with converting power. Even the Lord Jesus Christ depended upon the Holy Spirit to make his person (Jesus Christ) relevant in the lives of His disciples.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the greatest preacher and teacher who ever lived, taught the people for three years, and during that time He healed so many people that it is said of Him, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” Acts 21:25. Even so, at the end of His earthly ministry, on the day of Pentecost only one hundred and twenty people were present when they all came together. However, following the descent of the Holy Spirit three thousand souls were saved. Undeniably then, it is the decision of God to send the Holy Spirit that makes the difference in the conversion of souls, as it does also in the transformation of them from sinner to saint. Peter’s words would stand true, as he quoted from the prophet Joel, “and in the last days it will be,’ God says, ‘that I will pour out my Spirit on all people…” Acts 2:17.
It was the presence of the Holy Spirit that made the difference in the scores of conversions during the apostolic age, which was the fulfilling of God’s preordained will to pour out His grace and forgiveness upon all people, at that time. Equally, the acceptance by Jewish believers that God was receiving Gentiles into His kingdom was a miraculous act of God to radically change their thinking. It is with seeming ease that the Jews of that time could say, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also repentance that leads to life.” It is with that same ease that Christians must change their thinking today, and so the words of Jesus remain true, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
How does Spiritual Growth and Change of Mind Occur?
In other words what is God’s part and what is ours? We stand on the edge of a great canyon, as it were, filled with self-help books and we are inundated with the error that nothing will get done unless we do it, as if God were not in complete control of all things. At the same time, it is equally true that the spiritual disciplines of life are a complete necessity if we are to grow as Christians. Where then is the balance that brings liberating faith to our hearts, so that we can work with the peace of mind that it is not we ourselves but God who works within us both to work and to will for His good pleasure? Let us understand that the answer to my question is only found at the end of self!
There is a great chasm fixed between God and men and that chasm is filled with our sin, and at the center of our sin is the letter “I”. God in His great wisdom and grace provided the only solution for our dilemma, which is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the grave He carried our sins far away and in His resurrection He imparts newness of life. The previous truths are biblical and they are made believable and applicable by the working of the Holy Spirit within the believer. All that I have just said is done apart from any human means; it was planned by the Father, carried out by the Son, and made relevant in the believer by the Holy Spirit. The means that the Holy Spirit employs in the believer’s heart to make spiritual life a living reality is faith. Faith is the acceptance that what God has said is true; no matter how absurd it may seem to the carnal or natural man (a man devoid of the Holy Spirit).
There is an absence of human effort in my present writings and so some of you may be waiting for me to turn and say, “and now this is your part,” but I am not. In some circles, teachers refer to, ‘the doctrines of grace,” which teachings accept the idea that all good comes from God. Only when men receive the reality that all salvation is of God alone, do human efforts decline and faith in the outworking of God increase. So that, even spiritual disciplines become the outworking of God in a life, and human effort that is present, ceases to be self driven, and instead motivated for the glory of God and carried out by His (God’s) power. Unless faith is fixed on God alone sinfully motivated self-effort will not cease to be a problem for the Christian.
Faith is the means by which men please God, and without faith it is impossible to please Him. Without faith pride is the motivator because it is faith that accepts the notion that all things are of, and through, and unto God; without faith in God man is transfixed upon his own human efforts as the means of fixing what is wrong with the world. The ability to change our way of thinking is not in us because of sin, and so we are inflexible, hard hearted, and fixed on our own course and glory. If you are confused and without understanding concerning the doctrines of Grace, if you cannot discern the all encompassing work of God in a person, which turns even man’s efforts into God’s accomplishment, then admit you don’t understand and then you will be standing at the door of a new way of thinking. Acknowledge that you do not understand, that there needs to be an end of you, that you are inflexible, hard, and unchanging so that God’s word can have free course in your life.
In the first century, God expanded His work among all the peoples of the earth, He declared that in the person of His Son He had accomplished the remedy for all of men’s problems, and the most pressing one – internal sin. That which had continued for centuries (sin in the form of wars, hatred, killing, lying, stealing, and most importantly a hatred for the one true God by ignoring His existence) came to an end in the lives of individuals whom God chose to save. We can read of the evidence of this great accomplishment in the simple words, “Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.” In our day the need remains the same, how do we bridge the gap of our sin that separates us from God when our sin prevents us from change? The answer is faith – the full exclusion of trust in self to the complete acknowledgement that unless God works it will not get done well. Revival is the work of the Holy Spirit in a human heart that results in a change of how a man lives his life – human change is never the cause of revival.
Desire the work of the Holy Spirit, pray for it, seek it, and when it doesn’t happen – wait for it! Like one hundred and twenty souls when they came together, He will descend and accomplish what you cannot.