Spiritual transformation begins and ends with God’s glory.
In our culture, transformation begins and ends with self. Call it what you will -- whether “self-help,” “finding yourself,” or “being the change you want to see” -- transformation of self in our society is a vain pursuit that begins with our own efforts and ends with our own glorification: “Look at what I’ve achieved! How I’ve changed! How I look! What I can do!”
Consider a marathon runner who has finished the 26-mile race in under four hours, beating her personal goal. Any marathon finisher is amazing for the feat they’ve accomplished, but this runner stands out from the rest: She has completed the grueling race on a prosthetic right leg.
Imagine a news reporter interviewing this runner after she crosses the finish line. He commends her training for such a difficult race and celebrates her accomplishment, what with the obvious obstacle before her.
Now, it would be crazy if the woman responded by saying, “Yes, the leg I created is amazing, and it took hardly any work at all to learn how to run on it.” (I suppose there could be people like that in this world.)
But we would more so expect the runner to say something like, “This prosthetic leg is the creation of Dr. Henry Mills of Chicago, who also helped me to learn how to use it properly. I owe my success in this race to him. I don’t know what I would do without his help and medical expertise!”
That’s more like it. Glory attributed to the proper recipient. Focus shifted from the creation to the creator. Transformation pointing to its source.
How Transformation Happens
In some way, shape, or form we all want to be “transformed.” Whether it’s our body shape or size, the way we interact with our kids or spouses, or the way we understand our life’s purpose, we would all agree that transformation is a stirring topic. “Can a person really change?” we ask. This very question is addressed by dozens of talk shows, oodles of psychologists, and even within the Christian church.
So I ask, How do you want to change? In what ways do you wish you could grow?
It is this very topic of personal transformation that the apostle Paul addresses in 2 Corinthians 3. He says:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (vv 17,18)
Real, lasting transformation, then, is being changed into the glorious likeness of Jesus Christ, through the freeing work of the Holy Spirit in order that God’s glory is put on display. So real, lasting transformation is spiritual. Transformation begins with the gospel, results in our freedom, and ultimately purposes to exalt God’s glory.
1) Spiritual transformation begins with the gospel
Before we can even begin talking about how personal transformation happens, we must start with the gospel. This is because real, lasting change is propelled by the saving work of Jesus Christ, and not by human self-effort. Any pursuit of personal change apart from the gospel will be based on morality; the Bible tells us that we will never obey God’s moral law perfectly because, by nature, we are sinful people who are inclined to disobey God (Romans 3:19-20).
If you would not consider yourself a Christian, you need to know that real, lasting transformation cannot take place within you apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Paul says earlier in 2 Corinthians that without Christ, a veil lies over the hearts of unbelievers. This means that we are unable to see God as glorious without him first removing the veil. Our sin has blinded us, distracted us, and darkened our understanding of what is good and true.
So how is this veil removed? How then are we able to see God’s glory? Paul says, “When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” “because only through Christ is it taken away.” The answer is Jesus Christ.
Jesus has made a way for veiled sinners to see God’s glory and be in relationship with him again. He shouldered our sin on the cross and gave us his righteousness in exchange so that we could enter God’s holy presence. Jesus sacrificed himself so that rebel sinners could confidently approach God, and he took our punishment, which was God’s wrath, so that no judgment would be left for us. This is the gospel!
Spiritual transformation must start here, with Jesus. For apart from him, our efforts to change will be selfishly motivated and, at the end of time, will be judged as insufficient in light of his perfect glory.
But what about believers? How does the gospel spur on transformation within those who have put their faith in Christ?
So, in one sense, believers have already been transformed because Christ has given them a brand new identity, what the Bible calls being “a new creation.” But in another sense, we are not yet perfect and need to continually be transformed, especially while we are living on this fallen planet and struggling with the sinful desires of the flesh.
Think again of our marathon runner with the prosthetic leg. When she first received the leg from the doctor, she was profoundly changed because she could stand up and walk! Her life would never be the same. Even still, she had to learn how to run on it; there was more change to be had, and it would take time and training.
Similarly, believers have been made a new creation in Jesus Christ, once for all time . But there is still transformation to be had because we live in a fallen world, battling against the flesh. So transformation begins, and continues, with the gospel.
2. Spiritual transformation results in our freedom.
Think again to our runner: After getting her prosthetic leg, she could run the marathon without restrictions. She was free to run! But what if she tried to run the race without the leg? She would have struggled, defeated, to the bitter end.
When the Holy Spirit puts faith in a believer’s heart and enables her to believe in Jesus Christ, she is freed from bondage to sin and death. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” Paul says. In other words, any pursuit of morality not rooted in the gospel will only result in deeper bondage; but the pursuit of transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit results in freedom!
When you know that you are fully accepted by God and righteous in his sight because of Jesus, then the pursuit of transformation becomes something you get to do, rather than something you have to do.
Because we are still in the flesh, there will be days when we forget this truth! We will feel discouraged and defeated, as we struggle against sin’s lingering presence. It is on these days that we must remind ourselves that transformation continues with the gospel. Our acceptance in God’s sight is not based on how well we perform but on what Jesus did on our behalf.
Does this mean we sit around and do nothing? No! Just as the runner was compelled to finish her race when she got her prosthetic leg, so believers are freed by the Holy Spirit to seek God’s glory and be transformed by him! The Spirit frees us from sin and death to pursue transformation rooted in the gospel.
Today, if you are not in Christ, you are not free. You may feel free as you enjoy temporary pleasures and fleeting happiness. There is certainly a thrill in worldly living...for a time. This may satisfy for a moment, but it will not satisfy forever. Ultimately, living for yourself leads to an eternity apart from Christ, in bondage to sin. And this is opposite of freedom.
3. Spiritual transformation purposes to put God’s glory on display.
Finally, our transformation is not ultimately about us. It is about God’s glory being put on display to a world that desperately needs to see it.
Pastor and author Mark Dever explains:
When we rely on God, and God shows himself to be faithful, he gets the glory. This is what he has always intended. He does not intend for us to be strong, self-reliant, and without need of turning to him...He intends for us to be weak and oppressed, and then to turn and rely on him, because then he can provide what we need and thereby be glorified. (The Message of the New Testament, 203)
So spiritual transformation begins and continues with the gospel, results in our freedom, and purposes to put God’s glory on display.
So, can a person really change? Yes. And that change starts with Jesus.
Kristen Wetherell is a writer, speaker and the Content Manager of Unlocking the Bible. She's married to Brad, loves exploring new places, enjoys cooking, and writes music in her spare time. Her desire is to glorify Jesus Christ and edify believers through the written word. Connect with Kristen at her website or on Twitter @KLWetherell.