Preaching for Deep Change: Are You Sharing Information or Changing Lives? By Ed Stetzer
Change is something we all need. It is an ongoing part of life. With its constant flux, life demands adjustments for our schedules and plans. Essentially, change is the new norm. But people’s spiritual lives call for more than slight changes to the calendar. Their lives are in need of transformation.
As you know, transformation is not about trying harder or having a better life. Mark Twain reportedly said that church is good people standing in front of good people teaching them to be good people. The change people need is not simply about being a better person; that would be a gross misunderstanding of change and transformation. The gospel is bigger than simple moralism, and people need to understand the very nature of transformation.
Sometimes, what they need is a universal translator that helps them understand words like “change” and “transformation.” It is much like what we need in a marriage relationship for spouses to understand one another. Let me give a few examples:
1. When a husband says, “It's a guy thing,” he really means, “There is no rational thought pattern connected with it, and you have no chance at all of making it logical.”
2. Of course, there is the cryptic statement, “I can’t find it.” Though difficult to understand, this means, “It didn't fall into my outstretched hands, so I'm completely clueless.”
3. Wives should take special note when a husband says, “It would take too long to explain.” What we really mean is, “I have no idea how it works.”
You get the idea. Words can mean one thing from a communicator and something altogether different to the hearer.
The church can, at times, communicate the need for change in peoples’ lives, and it ends up understood as some low-level therapeutic moralistic deism—where a faraway God makes life better and makes you a better person. But that is not the gospel. We don’t want to produce good religious people. We see what becomes of good religious people from the encounters Jesus had with the Pharisees. God wants—as should we—to see people transformed at a spiritual level rather than a behavioral level.
Though often thought of in the same sense as a New Year’s resolution, transformation does not come from decisions made on January 1. Instead, it comes from re-creation, the re-creation that comes from new life in Christ. The change people need most is not in their circumstances, but in themselves. It is not the ability to try harder, but it is a life entrusted to Jesus.
So, when you preach “change,” translate it to mean “gospel change.” It is not the same thing as trying harder; in fact, there is no trying involved. Transformation occurs not because we “do,” but because Christ has “done.” So let me share three principles about the change we all need, along with some thoughts on how to clearly preach on the topic for understanding and action.
1. Real Change Starts With New Life, Not Just A New Leaf.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:17, HCSB). The very heart of the Christian faith revolves around change, but it is not turning over a new leaf—it is living out a new life.
Christian transformation always involves something old passing away and something new taking its place. Spiritual change is needed by everyone—the poor and the rich, the success and the failure. We are constantly in need of this change, no matter who we are. But too many people misunderstand the words. They believe, “If I change, then God will like me more.” The bid to be better accompanies the hope for divine blessing. But this is the false change that comes from religious idealism. It is a misunderstanding of the teaching of the gospel.
Some seek change through obedience. I’ve heard Tim Keller say it this way:“Religion says, ’I obey; therefore I am accepted.’ Christianity says, ‘I’m accepted, therefore I obey.” Our acceptance and subsequent change is affected by the work of Jesus Christ through his death and resurrection. His work causes my acceptance before God.
Everything else leads to exasperation. Trying to “turn over a new leaf” is a temporary fix to an eternal problem. And it leads to the frustrating, exasperating cycle of always looking for a new fix to our lives.
In the Old Testament, we see how this cycle played out in the life of Solomon. He tried to change through human ingenuity when he needed divine intervention. And he was the smartest person—ever.
I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to seek and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said to myself, "Look, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge." I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind. For with much wisdom is much sorrow; as knowledge increases, grief increases. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18).
Solomon’s own words show the “folly” of hoping to change one’s own life. With access to wisdom, finances, military power, and everything else one could possibly hope for in this life, Solomon found life to be no more than chasing the wind. He needed an outside force to grant something new rather than continuing after something old.
We need to give up on changing our own lives. Rather than wasting our lives on self-initiated change, we should give over our lives to God’s work to grant us a new life. Our minds cannot even begin to dream up the radical new life that is needed.
In John 3, Jesus was approached by someone who needed change. Nicodemus had the right pedigree, the right spiritual training and the right position in society, but had not been transformed. He was most likely moral and definitely religious. But Jesus informed him of the need to be “born again” (John 3:3). Nicodemus did not need more rules but rather a new life.
Nicodemus, like many of our listeners, had to unlearn the matrix in which he lived—the idea that rules and regulations bring about lasting spiritual change. They don’t. Rules can modify behavior, but only the gospel can impart new life. We should never be satisfied with merely a new way of life. Only a new life will suffice.
2. Real Change Is A Process, Not A Destination.
Nobody ever gets to a place of being everything God has called them to be on this side of eternity. It is part of why we yearn for the eternal life with him. Our life is one of growth. The transformation we encounter because of the gospel is how God is shaping our lives to mirror Jesus.
Paul wrote to some of the early Christians, “I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God is starting and completing the work of transformation in us. Real change happens at the moment of our salvation. It is punctiliar in nature. But we are daily being changed to be like Christ in how we live. Day by day, God wants us to grow in our knowledge and connection with him.
I am concerned when I hear someone boil the Christian experience down to praying a “sinner’s prayer” and then being thrown back into the world to “just do it.” When the “sinner’s prayer” is the only definable moment of a Christian life, the Christian is robbed of so much more.
Peter wrote, “By these He has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4). It is an overwhelming thought that God would share his “divine nature” with us. Honestly, when I do a quick evaluation of my life, I think, What a waste. God gets nothing out of this deal. But He is the giving, sending, sacrificing God who desires to root out my sinful nature and replace it with his own character.
By removing the human desire for significance and replacing it with the divine nature of sacrifice, God sets our lives in a new direction. It is a new process we partake in that causes life to have true significance—reflecting God’s glory.
To the Corinthian church, Paul wrote, “We all, with unveiled faces, are reflecting the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Like Moses, the only way to reflect God's glory is to catch a glimpse of it. When a believer sets their eyes on God, then life will be in the process of transformation.
Every night, we have a visible lesson for this principle with the Moon. The Moon does not produce light but reflects the light produced by the Sun. The curved shadow that overtakes the Moon is because the Earth blocks the light of the Sun. Without fail, if the Earth is in the way, the Moon cannot reflect the light of the Sun. The Earth will veil the light.
Placing our faith in Christ, God places our life into his kingdom. We are suddenly changed, and for that we should be satisfied and grateful. But God has chosen to invade the seven or so decades we have in this life. As we humble ourselves before the Spirit of God, his glory shines against our lives. But allowing the world to get in the way will certainly veil the glory of God from reflecting in our lives.
Through the process of being changed to live like Jesus, the veil is removed. The stuff of earth becomes less of our lives. Instead, the process of God’s transformation allows us to reflect more and more of his glory. His glory in us sets us more deeply into the mission that people of every tongue, tribe and nation will be transformed by him, as well.
Transformation happens in a moment to secure a person eternally, but it is consistently happening moment by moment to change that person daily.
3. Change Is Letting Go And Grabbing Hold.
God doesn’t force anyone to change, but he calls us to change. He says things like, “Be holy as I am holy,” and it sounds like an impossible task. But its possibility comes by the work of God and not the work of man. The transformation that comes to us spiritually empowers us to move from religious behavior to spiritual acceptance of God’s work. Paul put it this way:
“But that is not how you learned about the Messiah, assuming you heard Him and were taught by Him, because the truth is in Jesus: you took off your former way of life, the old man that is corrupted by deceitful desires; you are being renewed in the spirit of your minds; you put on the new man, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth" (Ephesians 4:20-24).
We are called to put off the “old man” and take hold of the “new man.” But we all know that letting go of the familiar is difficult, even when the new that is offered is better. For some reason, it seems part of our psyche to resist change, even when it will help. Here are some of the reasons that change is difficult for people:
a. Because people are stubborn
Have you ever tried to take something out of a two-year-old's hand? Much to the dismay of every parent, two-year-olds are amazingly strong and nimble. When they want to hold onto a toy, it takes ninja-like reflexes to get it from them.
But we are all just like them. We gain a laser-focus on what we hope to keep. Many people simply need to realize that it is time to unclench our fist and allow the Christ to embrace us.
b. Because people are trapped
Perhaps you’ve heard the illustration of how to trap a monkey. All you need is a rock and a coconut. Drill a hole in the coconut large enough to put the rock inside, but not large enough for anything else. A monkey will reach inside to take hold of the rock, but its clenched fist around the rock will not fit back through the hole. The monkey will, in effect, trap itself because of a refusal to let go of the rock.
Many Christians trap themselves with a clenched fist. Holding onto pride, hobbies, preferences, or any other thing can keep a person from the new life Christ wishes to form in them.
c. Because people are comfortable
Did you know that some people still use a rotary-dial phone? I don’t know why they are still in existence. But if you have one, it still works—at least in some parts of the country. Why would someone continue to use a piece of technology that is inferior? Because they are comfortable with it. It is familiar, and they have mastered it.
Are there places like that in the spiritual lives of your listeners? Absolutely. We get comfortable with sins that keep us from knowing Christ better. We get comfortable with irrelevant practices at church that keep others from understanding the gospel. We get comfortable with our standard of living, and it keeps us from the mission of God’s kingdom. We need to take hold of something better: God’s agenda for a missionary people.
d. Because we are afraid
Fear of the unknown is a primary reason people don’t change. Some think following Jesus will make them a fanatic or, at the very least, socially awkward. Not knowing what God will ask of them causes many to shy away from the new life offered by Jesus. It can even paralyze Christians from fully embracing the new life they have inherited.
e. Because change hurts
It is hard to change. Even good change costs some of a person’s security. Leaving the proverbial “comfort zone” will cause a ripple effect that carries a price. But for what God wants to give us and wants of us, change is required.
When talking about this, I often remind churches and individuals that people never change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of change. From a minor adjustment to a complete overhaul, change has a price-tag. It hurts to reorganize an office, lose weight or correct a sinful behavior. But the change is necessary even when it hurts. The only question remaining for most people is what hurts worse: staying where they are or getting where they want to be?
The extent of the change God wants is worth facing the stubbornness and fear.
In our book, Transformational Church, Thom Rainer and I wrote, “We can’t choose whether change will come or not. But we can choose whether to embrace it or resist it.” I believe it is critical to choose the kind of change that advances the work of God in us personally and in the world for the sake of his kingdom.
Later in the book, Thom and I wrote, “The alternative to this biblically mandated transformation is to pick a rut and make it deeper.” God holds a desire to bring transformation to life, the church, and your community. The transformation is there for the choosing. Of course, so is the rut of remaining spiritual static.
The change we all need is the change offered by Christ. It is a transformation that we are privileged to serve as an ambassador for in this life.