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Our culture has many approaches to helping people change. Pick a topic, and do a quick search online. You will see thousands of suggested ways to overcome a struggle. We all have our approaches. Do you want to know what your own personal “theology” of change is? Easy. When you see someone caught in a struggle, how do you complete this sentence: “If only they would __________”? Whatever you fill in the blank with exposes how you think people change.
The Morality Approach
Many Christians fill in that blank with something like “try harder.” This approach is the morality-based approach to change in which discipleship strategies are aimed at equipping us to understand God’s commands to live rightly, then we should simply do what is expected of us. In fact, the word “should” shows up a lot in this approach.
Growth is equated with obedience and measured based on performance (usually in pass/fail terms). The role of a disciple-maker in this strategy is similar to being a boss—communicate expectations and point out needed correction. The gospel rarely shows up in this approach beyond a type of gap-filler that bridges the difference between our performance and God’s expectations. This try-harder strategy often leaves us utterly defeated and ashamed.
The Therapeutic Approach
Others embrace the therapeutic approach to how people change. In fact, this one may be the most popular model today in our churches today. With the therapeutic approach, we try to understand how our life experiences shape or misshape us and contribute to our own dysfunctional behavior (which is rarely called sin).
Our role in the therapeutic model is to apply wisdom principles (usually a blend of man-centered approaches and biblical proof texts) to enable us to overcome our problems. Growth comes about with “break-throughs” and deeper insight into you, with our disciple-makers acting like quasi-therapists (or the more popular term “life coach.”).
The therapeutic model focuses on felt needs and wants you to become a better you. It tends to celebrate confession without ever pointing to repentance. Like the morality-based approach to change, the therapeutic model puts you in the driver’s seat. The gospel is applicable only in a general sense. We have the good news of God’s love but no bad news that brought about our need for good news in the first place.
The Hyper-Grace Approach
This approach calls into question the very idea of spiritual growth, seeing growth as something that may or may not even happen. This is the hyper-grace approach (“let go, let God”). The focus here is on God’s unconditional approval of us as we are, without regard to whether we ever change. This approach may mention the grace of God, but it is a very anemic grace that rarely calls a man or woman to come and die. It espouses a half Gospel that justifies but never empowers us to be sanctified.
An Incomplete Approach
Each of these approaches has some parts that are true. God’s Word does indeed give us a template for living, and throughout Scripture there are numerous exhortations for us to engage in personal effort to live rightly. And it is also true that the wounds we receive from the sins of others affect and can shape our own sin tendencies. And it is also true that, in Christ (an important qualifier), we are loved by God independent of our growth as a Christian.
Yet all of the above approaches to growth are incomplete and, at some level, plain wrong. If we have the ability to overcome sin only through our own effort, then Jesus died for no reason. And our wounds are not our greatest problem – it’s our own sin. No wisdom of man can overcome that problem. And God clearly cares about our growth. In fact, Romans 8:29 says that he has predestined us to be conformed to the image of his son. Because sin causes so much suffering in us, it would be unloving of God to not care about our daily fight against sin. God loves us, and he wants us to grow and to experience victory in our fight against sin. In fact, Scripture says he wants us to be dead to sin (Romans 6:11).
The Gospel Approach
What then is the distinctly Christian model for how people change? One that is built around and upon the gospel. Only the gospel provides us with practical, effective and God-glorifying means to change. The gospel is the good news concerning all that has been accomplished for you through the life, death, resurrection, ascension and ongoing reign of Jesus Christ and applied to you through the regenerating and indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. And because of the good news we have the heart and the means to be changed.
As disciple-makers, we constantly toggle our conversations between gospel need and gospel provision. The fact that sin is our fundamental struggle in this life is our most basic gospel need. It is sin that causes brokenness in us and chaos within the rest of creation. We lack any real power on our own to control our sin, just like we lack any real power to undue the futility that sin has caused in creation. The same dark force that makes you want to look at porn is also what causes tornadoes to rip through subdivisions and tsunamis to submerge islands. No part of the created realm has been untouched by sin. A disciple-maker is clear that the fight against sin is a spiritual battle that requires spiritual weapons. We cannot use our self-will to overcome sin.
For the person who does not have saving faith in Jesus Christ, who does not have the Spirit of God living in them, the greatest gospel need is for conversion to occur. Any discussion of change which side-steps this most crucial need deprives a person of our greatest advocate (Christ) and the only means by which we can truly change (his grace). So a disciple-maker begins the change conversation with this fundamental need.
But believers also have an ongoing gospel need. Yes, because of our faith in Christ, we have been brought from death to life and the Spirit of God now lives in us. We are no longer enemies of God, but have been reckoned righteous by the goodness of Christ himself. The Apostle Paul sums this up by declaring that because of the work of the gospel we are now a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). Yet, we still have old sin tendencies as well. The “flesh” still inhabits us and leads us astray. Believers, therefore, have not moved past their need for the gospel. But many Christians struggle to see how the gospel plays a practical role in their ongoing growth.
Here’s what I mean. Christians share a confessed hope that after we die on some glorious day in the future Christ will return and he will instantly bring our dead, decayed bodies back to life into a glorious state. We know it sounds far-fetched. But we believe it by faith and are certain it is true. If we don’t believe it, Paul says we are to be pitied the most. But it is true!
So, knowing that we have already believed what may seem the hardest to believe, what if I were to tell you that the same gospel which assures you of a bodily resurrection also promises you the means to fight against every day sin? Do you believe that is true in the same way you believe the resurrection is true? Sadly, too many Christians would say that the God who resurrects dead bodies offers no practical help with porn, broken marriages, anger, alcohol abuse, etc.
But what does scripture say about God’s willingness to meet your Gospel need to fight against sin? Paul writes this is in Ephesians 1:19-20:
And what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
Paul is telling us that the same power that resurrected Jesus and vindicated him before God and seated him at God’s right hand is now available to us. The power of God, his grace, brings the dead back to life and enables the believer to fight against sin and to grow up into the image of our savior. God graciously meets our gospel need with gospel provision. As disciple-makers, that is the primary content of our proclamation. “Your needs have been met in Christ Jesus—all of them.” Denying that truth leads to sin.
Fundamentally, our role as disciple-makers is not to be a life coach or a therapist. It is to be evangelists. We share the good news with those who have never heard it, but we also remind those who have received it that they must never move on from it. We must stress the need to repent of all of our ways that we reject God’s promises to us and to once again have faith that all we need for life and godliness has been given to us in Christ (2 Pt. 1:3).
That is how people really change. And that glorifies God.
Jim Hudson (MA, JD) serves as a pastor and elder at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. His ministry passion is to help others see the wonderful truth that through the Gospel we have all we need for life and godliness. Jim lives in Little Rock with his wife Leigh. While they have no children of their own, in Christ they have many spiritual children and grandchildren.