Christian Growth or Behavioral Modification?

“…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” Eph 4:22-24

What makes the process of “Christian growth” more than mere behavioral modification? I’m afraid that much of Evangelicalism treats sanctification as simply the process of becoming moral. We very often think in terms of self-improvement, especially if you’ve been influenced by conservative fundamentalism. In this vein, Christian maturity becomes about things we “shouldn’t be doing”  (often cultural) such as seeing certain movies, saying certain words, drinking certain beverages, etc. etc. Holiness, then, becomes defined by morality. But what makes this version of Christian living unique or any different than the piety of Buddhists, the morality of Mormons, or the zealousness of the Jehovah’s Witness? In a word, nothing.

My point, of course, is not that Christianity should ever be immoral, but rather something much more. Paul gives two imperatives in the above verses. First, we are to “put off (the) old self.” Why? Because it belongs to our “former manner of life (pre-conversion) and is corrupt through deceitful desires.” Secondly, we are to “put on the new self.” But please note how Paul describes this manner of living. It’s not simply embracing a higher morality. No, he says the new self is “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” This is what God is doing in salvation! He is conforming us to the image of Christ Jesus (cf. Rom 8:29). On the one hand we recognize that indwelling sin will be a struggle for the believer until the Day of Christ. On the other hand, God has given to us the Holy Spirit who produces a longing in our hearts for God himself. As this longing grows, we find ourselves more and more dissatisfied with our present reality and we yearn for worship- to glorify God in every aspect of our lives. Sure, our behavior changes in the process, but it is the result of “deceitful desires” being replaced with a hunger for “true righteousness and holiness.” This is where so many go wrong. If we define holiness by the externals, then we miss the heart of the matter, which is the heart!

Well, I guess we better get to work, then, right? Well, hold that thought…

You see, taking off the old and putting on the new circles around a key idea in the passage above: “be renewed in the spirit of your minds!” Note the tense. It’s passive. This is the work of God, not your efforts! In fact, without the Holy Spirit renewing our minds these imperatives become an impossibility. We know that the Holy Spirit uses the Scripture to renew our thinking (cf. John 14:26). Therefore, the modus operandi of Christian growth is the Spirit of God impressing within us the Word of God to make us look like the Son of God. Please don’t miss this point. We want a quick fix. We want to microwave our sanctification. But, no. Salvation is all of God- including our growth. So, Antioch, this week I encourage you to commit yourself to the Scripture. Pray that the Holy Spirit illuminates it for you. Pray for a deeper desire to worship. Pray for a hunger and a thirst for righteousness and holiness that looks like King Jesus. Then, in the words of Sam Cooke, “I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

Soli Deo Gloria!

Pastor Matthew S. Rickett

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