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We come now to the second part of Romans 12:2. In order not to conform, we must be transformed. This theme runs throughout the New Testament. God does not want us to stay where we are. He wants us to change, radically. Change is often difficult and can be painful. But it is what God wants and expects of us.
A RADICAL TRANSFORMATION
God expects that, when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we will be radically changed, transformed. The Greek word is metamorphoo. This transformation is to be a metamorphosis, of a magnitude at least comparable to that by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. God expects us to become totally different.
Scripture uses many different images to express the change that should occur:
Each of these images, in a different way, emphasizes the magnitude of the change that is expected. Each is dramatic and astonishing in itself; their cumulative effect is even more powerful. We are talking about a tremendous transformation. It should be visible to others, but its internal effect should be far greater than what others can perceive.
Such a transformation is not easy to achieve. Indeed, we can only achieve it through God’s mighty power working within us. We also have an enemy (satan) who will resist the transformation in every way he can. He tries to do everything he can to render us ineffective. I believe this whole area of becoming transformed is one of the major battlegrounds of our conflict with satan. (See Chapter 12.)
One of the major weaknesses among Christians today is that, often, this transformation, if it has occurred at all, is not visible to the world. Jesus said, “He that has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). I believe he expects that anyone who sees a true Christian will see in him at least something of Jesus Christ. We are expected to be “a letter from Christ… written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3 NIV). We should be witnesses to Christ (Acts 1:8), not only by what we say, but even more by who we are. Jesus said that the world should know who his disciples are by their love for each other (John 13:35). He said of his disciples, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world” (John 17:16).
If a person is not significantly changed by their salvation, their acceptance of Christ as Lord and Savior, we are entitled to wonder whether their salvation was genuine.
In today’s world, Christians are increasingly coming under attack. One of the grounds of attack often heard is, “You Christians are no different than anyone else. Just more hypocritical.” It is distressing that such an attack can be made. We are supposed to be salt and light to the world, and to let our light shine before men (Matthew 5:13-16). We need to so live that the difference between Christians and non-Christians is inescapable. We need to stand, boldly and clearly, for what we believe.
THE GOAL OF THIS TRANSFORMATION
What is the goal of this metamorphosis? Scripture states it in a number of different ways, which overlap and can be seen as different ways of expressing the same basic concept. Scripture often does this, because our minds are inadequate to comprehend, and our language inadequate to express, the full scope of God’s revelation to us.
Our Character Becomes More Godly
The whole concept can be summed up in the simple and astonishing statement that we are to become like God in character. Not like God in power—we should never aspire to that—but like God in character. We are to “…put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24 NIV), the “…new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10 NIV). “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV). God intends us “…to be conformed to the likeness of his Son…” (Romans 8:29 NIV). We are to “…participate in the divine nature…” (2 Peter 1:4 NIV). “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). (Also see Philippians 2:5.)
Adam and Eve were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). With their Fall, much of that image was lost. But with Christ’s sacrifice for us, those who accept him as Lord and Savior can be restored into God’s image.
Let us look at some other ways of expressing the same concept.
We Live for the Things That Are Unseen
Two of the great statements about this transformation are:
A look at what is said between those two statements tells us a good deal about the nature of this transformation.
In 2 Corinthians, chapters 4 and 5, Paul repeatedly contrasts the material world in which our bodies now live, and the spiritual world. He tells us that the spiritual world is the real one, on which we should focus. He says, “…we regard no one from a worldly point of view…” (2 Corinthians 5:16 NIV). Earlier he says, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 NIV). And in 1 Corinthians 2:14, he points out that the man without the Spirit cannot understand spiritual things.
In 2 Corinthians 4:18 (NIV), Paul says, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” Again, in 2 Corinthians 5:7 (NIV), he says, “We live by faith, not by sight.” (Also see Hebrews 11:1 NIV, which says that faith “…is being certain of what we do not see.”) Paul says much the same in Colossians 3:1-2 (NIV), “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” God is spirit and he lives primarily in the realm of the spirit. He lived in that realm before there was any physical universe, and he will live in it even though heaven and earth pass away. (See Isaiah 51:6.) If we are to be like him, we need to learn to see things from God’s perspective.
This results in a wholly different order of priorities.
First, the natural person, the untransformed person, lives primarily for material things. His priorities are those of the material world. The transformed person lives primarily in a spiritual world. He lives primarily by faith in God and in God’s word, rather than by his physical senses. He regards the unseen things of faith as more real and more lasting than the material things which surround him. The transformed person is living primarily in a different world, a world in which spiritual rather than material things have primary importance.
Second, where the natural person lives only for this life, the transformed person is already living in eternity. Paul speaks of this in many ways. For Paul, tribulations and difficulties of this world become minor when compared to the glory to come. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 (NIV), Paul says, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” (Also see 1 Peter 4:12-13; Hebrews 12:2.) He says, “So we are always confident” (2 Corinthians 5:6), because we know that when we leave this earthly body we will be with the Lord, which is better. (Also see Philippians 1:21.)
Jesus told those who believed in him that in this world they will have tribulation (John 16:33). Paul said that “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), and that “…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…” (2 Timothy 3:12 NIV). But we should rejoice in our troubles, because we learn and grow from them (James 1:2-4; Romans 5:3-5), and because they are far outweighed by the glory that is to come. As believers, “…we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28 NIV).
Third, “…those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:15 NIV). Hence, “…we make it our goal to please him…” (2 Corinthians 5:9 NIV). We should not be like those who “loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:43). (Also see Isaiah 51:12-13.) Jesus has told us, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:18-19 NIV).
These are all major shifts in our attitudes and priorities. Truly they require a “renewing of the mind.”
These changes in priorities may help explain a passage that has long puzzled me. In Luke 10:19, Jesus said that he had given his disciples authority over all the power of our spiritual enemy (the devil) “and nothing shall by any means hurt you.” Available data seems to indicate that 10 of the 12 disciples were martyred, some quite painfully. Since then, many disciples of Jesus have been martyred, beaten, or otherwise physically mistreated for their faith. This occurs today in quite a few parts of the world. How could Jesus say that nothing would hurt his disciples? Let me offer a suggestion. In spiritual terms, in eternal terms, nothing did hurt them. They went on to be with God and to receive a martyr’s reward. The result of their physical pains was, in Paul’s words, “an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:7 NIV). Jesus was speaking in spiritual terms; he was talking of conflict with a spiritual enemy. In Luke 12:5, Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do.” Was he telling his disciples that, because of the authority he had given them, they need not fear spiritual harm?
We Live by the Spirit
When we receive Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, God sends us the Holy Spirit to live with us and be in us (John 14:16). It is because we have the Holy Spirit living in us, and his power working in us, that we are able to be transformed. But the process is not instantaneous. The Holy Spirit inhabits our spirit, but our soul and body need to be brought under the Spirit’s control. (I discuss this in chapter 15.)
We Are Yielded to God
Part of what living by the Spirit means is that we are wholly yielded to God. We are no longer slaves to sin but slaves to obedience and righteousness (Romans 6:16). We submit ourselves to God (James 4:7). (See Chapters 16 and 17.)
HOW CAN WE ACHIEVE
The task of achieving such a transformation seems impossible. How can we humans acquire the character of God? But God always enables us to do what he calls on us to do. Our character can become like God’s character because we have God in us. (See Chapter 11.) As we allow the Holy Spirit who is in us to control our soul and body, we can become like God in character. And God has given us the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), the same power in which Jesus ministered while here on earth, so that we can do all things through him who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).
We need always to keep in mind two things about this transformation. First, it is a process. It does not happen all at once. We “are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory.” We spend a lifetime learning how to live by the Spirit, live a new life. We must work out, and keep on working out, our salvation with fear and trembling. We must keep making every effort to be holy (Hebrews 12:14). We must submit, and keep on submitting, to God. Over and over and over we must take our thoughts captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). Near the end of his life, Paul did not consider that he had arrived (Philippians 3:12).
Some of the passages do sound as if they speak of an instantaneous transformation. We can understand those passages in this way. The change in our spirit comes about immediately. But it usually takes quite a while for that change to be reflected in our soul and flesh. Also, God’s time is not the same as ours. A thousand years are as a moment in his sight. 2,000 years ago, Jesus said he was coming “quickly”; we still wait for his coming. After Eli told Saul, “the LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” (1 Samuel 15:28), it took over 20 years before David assumed the throne.
Second, we and God cooperate to bring it about. We cannot do it ourselves. And God will not usually do it without our cooperation. In this, as in so many aspects of our spiritual life, we and God are co-laborers. “We are God’s fellow workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9). “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13 NIV). We work and God works. We labor together.
One aspect of this transformation is showing the “fruit of the spirit.” A farmer cannot cause fruit to grow; he can create conditions favorable to its growth and protect it from parasites, diseases and other forces that seek to destroy it. In somewhat the same way, we cannot cause God’s character to grow within us; only God can do that. But we can create favorable conditions for its growth—by faith, prayer, study of the word, etc.—and we can protect that growth from the devil’s attacks.
What is our part in this labor? Let me suggest some aspects of it.
BELIEVE —We need to believe that God can and will transform us into his image, that this astonishing metamorphosis can and will occur. We need to consider him faithful who has made the promise (Hebrews 11:11). “Without faith we cannot please God” (Hebrews 11:6). If we do not believe that God will achieve this transformation, or if we are double-minded in our belief, we cannot expect to receive anything from God (James 1:6-8). Whenever we catch ourselves in unbelief, we must renounce it and repudiate it.
CHOOSE —We must make an act of the will. We must choose to be transformed, choose to put off the old self and put on the new self, choose to live by the Spirit, choose to submit to God, choose to be weapons of righteousness, etc. God, through Moses, told the Israelites, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). God gives us that same choice today.
STAY IN GOD’S WORD —The agent that renews our mind is the word of God. It is not enough just to read the word. We need to believe it, take it seriously, and follow it. We need to let it dwell in us, work in us, become engrafted in us, become a part of us. Scripture speaks often about the importance of meditating on the word of God (Joshua 1:8; Psalms 1:2, 119:78). The Hebrew word for meditate suggests a cow chewing its cud, working the material over and over to extract all the good from it.
GUARD OUR THOUGHTS —If we would be transformed by the renewing of our mind, be made new in the attitude of our mind, we need to guard carefully what goes into our mind. We need to think on those things that are true, noble, right, pure, etc. (Philippians 4:8). Even more important, we need to guard against our own wrong thoughts, the thoughts that come from the flesh and not the spirit. We need to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). We need to do this, not just daily, but moment by moment. Whenever we find ourselves thinking unscriptural thoughts, we need to repudiate them, renounce them, and replace them with thoughts that are Scripturally true.
PRAY —“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). The same principle applies to any other quality we lack. “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). Jesus told us, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). The form of the verbs means “keep on asking,” “keep on seeking,” “keep on knocking.” When we keep asking God to change us into his likeness, we unite our will with his and make it possible for him to co-labor with us.
PERSEVERE —Jesus told his disciples to persist in prayer (Luke 18:1-7, 11:5-10). We are to “…run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1 NIV). (Also see Hebrews 6:11.) Scripture is full of words telling us to apply ourselves diligently to the task before us. We need to keep pursuing, making every effort, pressing on, continuing, standing, etc. The promises of God do not usually drop in our laps. They come to the one who persists, presses in, keeps on keeping on.
RESIST THE DEVIL —Satan does not want us to succeed. (See Chapter 12.) He does not want us to be transformed. His purpose is to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). If he cannot prevent us from being saved, he will try to keep us ineffective. He does not want us to take on the image of God for two reasons: (1) he hates God; (2) he knows that if we do take on the image of God, we will be more powerful opponents. So he will do everything possible to distract, discourage and defeat.
I believe this area of being transformed is one of the major areas of the conflict with satan that we face as individuals. The Spirit and the sinful nature are in conflict with each other (Galatians 5:17). Within our body, sin is at war against God’s law (Romans 7:23). The sinful mind is hostile to God (Romans 8:7). The image of putting off our old self and putting on the new may sound as easy as taking off one coat and putting on another, but the devil will resist it stubbornly every step of the way.
The primary battleground is the mind. It is the mind that God wants renewed, and it is in our mind that the devil most often attacks us. Hence the paramount importance of feeding our minds on Scripture, praise and communion with God, and of learning to take every thought captive to make it obedient to Jesus Christ.
We fight the devil, not in our strength, but in God’s (Ephesians 6:10). The spiritual weapons we fight with have divine power (2 Corinthians 10:3). “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the LORD of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Jesus has given us authority over all the power of our spiritual enemy, the devil (Luke 10:19), but it is only when we submit ourselves to God that the devil will flee from us (James 4:7). (Compare this with Acts 19:13-17.)
If we recognize the devil’s work, submit ourselves to God, and stand firmly against the devil, he will not succeed. If we fail to recognize the devil, fail to submit ourselves to God, or do not take a stand against the devil, we may allow him to obstruct or defeat the transformation we seek.
KEEP THE VISION —“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV). We need to keep hold of the vision, to keep our eyes on the promise God has given that we can be transformed into his likeness. We need to focus on the unseen promise, and not on what we perceive in the natural as our shortcomings or the seeming slowness of any progress. We need to picture what it will be like as we gradually become transformed. We need to keep reminding ourselves that all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26), and that God “calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Romans 4:17). Let us, then, push aside all sense of discouragement or failure, throw off everything that hinders (Hebrews 12:1), and press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called us (Philippians 3:14).