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Gospel Transformation vs. Moral Reformation

Kaleo Church has recently joined the historical and universal church by plunging into the great book of Acts. As we’ve looked week after week at the vast release of energy that empowered the early church I purposely chose a word, which to me, seems to best describe what we’re attempting here in San Diego.

We’ve been using the word ‘transformission’ regularly over these last few weeks. I want to describe what we’re thinking.

1. Gospel transformation is different from moral reformation. It is absolutely possible, and even common, for newer and older Christians to assume that to believe the gospel means you’ve become a moral/pious person. I’m certainly not suggesting that moral piety does not result from gospel transformation, but moral piety doesn’t need gospel transformation to occur, nor does it ensure that a deep heart transformation has taken place.

I know quite a few ‘moral’ atheists, Mormons, Jews, and a others who outwardly make Christians appear immoral. Moral reformation is not ultimately the goal of the Christian. The goal of the Christian is a love for God, which can only come from a transformed heart by grace. When moral reformation is the fuel and goal, the heart will seize like an engine without oil. The human heart is made to run on grace not legalism.

Gospel transformation both creates and causes obedience from the heart. The gospel works from the inside-out. Moral reformation creates insecurity and hypocritical criticism of others in part because we’re attempting to win God’s favor through performance. Moral reformation works from the outside-in.

Moral reformation says “believe in Christ, obey God’s law, have favor with God,” but gospel transformation says “believe in Christ, have favor with God, and obey out of gratitude.” Never the twain shall meet. These two are not simply different forms of the same religion, but different religions entirely. God’s infinite worth and favor are not easily bought by finite, self-righteous deeds. The only hope for a changed life is a changed heart – one that learns to beat in the rhythm of grace.

       Moral reformation brings death and decay whereas gospel transformation brings life and health.

2. Gospel transformation is not a cul-de-sac. There is a tendency for us to become morbidly introspective when we begin to look at the functional messiahs and idols of our heart. As we learn how to preach the gospel to ourselves and to one another, it becomes obvious that this deep introspection can immobilize us with analysis paralysis. We begin to question every deed we do, every word we say, every thought we think, and soon realize that we have very few pure motives and even fewer altruistic deeds. Without the gospel bringing us up the slope of faith (to see that our failures must lead us to faith in Christ who did not fail), we end up in deep repentance, which does not turn into renewed faith. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. To turn from sin means we’re now turning to something else in faith. It does not mean that you see the sin and repent of your motives or deeds only to stay stuck in inactivity for the sake of true repentance. True repentance is the turning of our hearts and minds away from what displeases God to what pleases Him, namely Christ our Lord.

Without the joy of looking to Christ in faith, we have not truly experienced the joy repentance brings.

My main concern is that gospel transformation – without leading us to joy in Christ and the desire for others to delight in Christ – is not true transformation. Why does God forgive us of our sins? – is it so we can stay isolated and alone? No, God forgives us so we can live as Kingdom citizens giving a preview to the world of what it looks like to be a child of the Father living with a new identity. We are freed from our sin to have communion with God – to be sent into the world. If communion with God does not cause our hearts to break for those He’s made, we are only using God as a currency to purchase things we want (peace, security, hope, joy, mended relationships, etc.). This is not what God has planned for our world. God sent His Son into this world on a mission to reclaim all things for Himself. He desires to redeem all marred, lost, and broken souls. We are, after all, created in His image, and we need to be about our Father’s business – not our own. This means we must seek after that which brings God pleasure and is aligned with His will. Every day God allows the clock to tick on in patience as He delays consummation for the purpose of bringing in the full number of His own. God’s loving patience gives us another day to seek after the lost on His behalf.

If gospel transformation does not cause us to be courageously freed on mission, we are missing something in the gospel. The gospel is “good news” not good advice, not good deeds shown by good people. Of course the gospel must be shown in deed, and of course the gospel informs our lives, but it is news to be spoken, taught, declared, and proclaimed. This can happen in a variety of ways, but it means that the good news must keep moving in and through us, empowering change in the lives of others.

Gospel transformation should really be called gospel “transformission” because it is the heart changed by grace and set loose into the world for the sake of the lost on behalf of our God. We must be the church in the world for the world. If not, the gospel has been relegated to a personal “get out of hell free” card as the rest of God’s creation groans under the burden and agony of sin. Gospel transformission shows us that the gospel is not finished with us but is moving. It is dynamic and not static. It is public and powerful. Not private and impotent.

So, when thinking through what it means to be changed by the gospel, it’s important that we have our eyes on God and the ways He’s working through us to redeem the world. This will orient our thoughts, feels, and acts. Transformissional living keeps all three flowing in an interdependent way. Without a gospel that transforms our hearts to be loosed on mission, we are missing out on the joy of living God’s story, which is the only story we should seek.

David Fairchild was the co-founder and preaching elder of Kaleo Church in San Diego and now serves as the Lead Pastor of Mars Hill West Seattle as well as a founding member of The GCM Collective. He currently lives in Seattle with his wife, Grace, and their two children, Michael and Madison.