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Warning: When Changing, What You Don't Know Will Kill You, Part 1

From the series How to Change for the Better

In this message, Chip reveals a danger lurking behind the scenes, waiting for those of you who are working hard to make positive changes in your life. If you don’t know it’s there, it can kill you.

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Message Transcript

The absolute greatest danger in all the world when you want to change, you want to change. This is not a matter of sincerity, it’s not a matter of willpower. You honestly want to change and then you believe – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – If I just try harder.

Listen to what the Scripture says with regard to that. Paul, in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, he is defending his apostleship. He says the evidence of his apostleship, in the verses before that, is the changed lives of the people.

He says, “You know, we don’t need letters of recommendation from people. You are our letter. You are our epistle, written not with words but with the Spirit upon human hearts.”

He said, “If anyone wants to know whether I am really an apostle, I don’t get references. I just turn to people like you and say, ‘Look at their lives.’” And then following that, in verse 5, he says, “Now, not that we are confident in ourselves,” in other words, it’s not that Silas and Timothy and I are big shots, “or claim anything for ourselves, but our confidence, our ability, our power comes from God.”

Then he explains it, verse 6, “He has made us competent as ministers of the New Covenant,” or we call it the New Testament. It’s a new contract, it’s a new arrangement that God made, different from the old one He made with Moses and the nation of Israel.

Now he gives a little definition of what the difference is. “Not of the letter, but of the Spirit.” Not a set of rules, not a high bar that says, “Okay, to be good, you have to jump that bar.” And as soon as you jump it, you know how they do, they keep moving it up? He says, “Not of the letter, but of the Spirit.”

Now, notice the commentary on this little arrangement. “For the letter kills,” it kills. You develop a standard, you develop a set of rules and you say, “I am going to keep them. I am going to keep them. I am going to keep them!” You will fail.

In fact, Paul will teach us that the entire reasoning behind the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament law was never to bring life, but it was to set a standard so all men would learn that no matter how hard they try, they can’t reach it, and would turn to God for mercy and grace.

In fact, in this chapter, he’ll say, “The law that was etched in stone has been done away with, and there is a new and better and living way.” But the Spirit gives life. Power, freedom, change. The Spirit is what does it.

Now, we are in a series called: How to Change for the Better. We talked about integrity, didn’t we? We talked about looking down deep in your heart, unless you’re willing to face issues below the waterline, below just behavior, you’ll never change. That was one of those penetrating, Oh, gosh, right?

And then we looked at motivation. You remember the first verse of chapter 3 and the last verse? And we said motivation comes, lasting motivation, it’s not out of guilt – that is very short-term – but out of the fear of the Lord and the reality of accountability that we will be judged. And also the promise and the reward that God is going to reward us, that He keeps His promises.

And then we moved on. And we looked at the tongue. Do you remember that? And we said that our tongue gives evidence to what is really in our heart and if we can ever control our tongue, it is the only way that we will ever, ever change from the inside out.

But you know what I started hearing from you as I interacted with you all? Okay, boy, I’m going to really focus on my tongue now. I’m going to look at my motivation. Integrity. And what I began to hear is, I’ll try harder.

And I want to stop and I want to go back to the basics, because the people that scare me are not people that don’t care much about God.

You know the people that scare me? The people who are so sincere and the people who are really sincere who really want to grow,  you know where you are going to be this time next week without this message? Trying harder, trying harder, then really trying harder! And then you’re going to hit a wall. And you’re going to be frustrated and then you’re going to say, You know something? I’ve been trying to watch my tongue, I’ve been trying to watch this, I’ve been trying to watch this. So far, all I feel is guilty and I realized how putrid my own heart is. Thanks, Chip.

And so, we want to get a pit stop and we are going to take a huge lens back off and we are going to look at how God changes us, a reminder of how God actually changes.

So back to the basics, what I would like you to do is turn in your Bibles to 2 Corinthians chapter 3. We are going to do a thumbnail sketch and get a big view of how the Spirit of God works in transforming our lives.

Now, I’m not going to read it all. You’ve got the general flow. But what you do need to understand is that then, in the following verses, beginning at verse 7 through 11, Paul sets up a contrast. And the contrast is between the revelation or the Law that comes through Moses, and that which came from him.

And as you would read on, you’re going to find that Moses had some really interesting experiences when he went up on Mount Sinai, remember that? And he beheld God, face-to-face. And God gave him the Law. And it was such an overwhelming intimacy that, do you remember how his face would shine because he would radiate the glory of God?

And then Moses was like us. He wanted people to think that he had that kind of relationship all the time. Here’s where we catch Moses with a little less than authentic Christianity. And so, what he would do is he would be the Lord and just His power and His transcendence, and His glory, then his face would shine. And initially, he would put it up because he would blow people away.

And so, he put this veil on his face. And then he would kind of look in a stone or a mirror and he would realize he hadn’t been with the Lord in a while and it would start to fade. And the passage says that he would keep the veil on so that the other Israelites wouldn’t see it fading.

And so, this chapter, I’m going to let you study it on your own. But what this chapter does, it contrasts the superiority of the New Covenant – God’s new arrangement through Christ on the cross – with the Old Covenant, or the old arrangement where He gave the Law and had the sacrificial system and all those animals that were killed, as pictures and forerunners to say that one day there will be a once and for all payment for sin.

And so, he contrasts the two and over and over you are going to hear, as glorious, as magnificent as it was what God gave to Moses, that was a B plus and this is an A plus. This is superior. This is incredible. And that is what he develops.

So, picking it up at verse 12, he says, “Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing on it while the radiance was fading away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the Old Covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away.”

Only in Christ, only in personal, dependent, trusting relationship with Jesus Christ do you get this new power, this Spirit dwelling within you.

“Even so,” verse 15, “to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” The understanding is given. “Now the Lord is the Spirit.”

By the way, just for you Bible students, this is as clear a passage in all of the New Testament for the deity of the Holy Spirit. The word here for Lord is that Old Testament phrase, Yahweh. Lord!

“Now the Lord,” Yahweh, Infinite God, The Great I AM, “is the Spirit,” and notice what he says, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” There is no bondage.

Now, I put verse 18 in because this is what I want to focus on. Verse 18 then, he summarizes, then how is it that God changes us as New Testament believers? “But we all, with unveiled face,” in other words, we have understanding, we have relationship through Christ, “but we all with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror,” in other words, it’s not accurate, one hundred percent clarity of who God is, but it’s a reflection. It’s a pretty good, “beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image,” – what image? Like Christ. Like exactly what God is. How does it happen? “From glory to glory,” it’s progressive, it’s in degree.

And then notice, it’s like bookends. He starts with the Lord as the Spirit and He ends with, “Just as from the Lord, the Spirit.”

So, a couple of observations. From verse 17, where the Lord is the Spirit, change is a work of the Spirit. Pretty simple, isn’t it? It’s simple but it’s profound. Because if you try and do it yourself, it doesn’t work.

Second observation, change is a byproduct of a personal, accurate, and deepening relationship with God. And I get that from, “We are beholding Him with unveiled face, as in a mirror.”

See, you know what happens in our Christians circles is we want to change for the better but we want to be more patient because it would make our lives better. We want to be more loving because we would get along with people at work or our wives or our mothers or mother-in-laws or whoever better.

See, change is a byproduct. If you really want to change, get to know God very deeply. And what will happen to you is what happened to Moses. The more time Moses spent with God and the more accurately he saw Him, whatever God was like started rubbing off on Moses, to the point that His glory was so great and the intimacy so powerful, that Moses’ skin actually would reflect the glory of God.

The third observation is: change occurs from the inside out. It’s not a set of rules, it’s not, Oh, I’ve got to do this. And I get that from this little phrase, “We are being transformed.” And the word for transformed is that old biology term. Remember? Metamorphosized? Or metamorphosis? Where the little worm gets into the cocoon and from the inside out, one day, becomes a butterfly.

It’s also the same word, remember when Jesus went up with His key disciples: Peter, John, and James. And He was transfigured up on the mountain. It’s the same word.

And what is important about that is that it says, “And He shone brightly,” it wasn’t like, heaven didn’t come with floodlights on Jesus and Peter and James are going, Oh, wow, look at that! What they saw was the light, it was like He unzipped His humanity and He opened up Himself and deity came out! The change came from the inside out.

When He transfigured, what He did is He allowed them to see Him in His power, in His glory, and that’s why they fell down as dead. And so, change, it happens the same way. The Spirit of God, when we trust Christ, enters our lives, manifesting the presence and the power of Christ in us; we are sealed by the Holy Spirit; we are adopted into His family; and we are empowered then and so God wants to change us from the inside out. That’s how it works.

Finally, change is a progressive, ongoing process. Notice it’s from glory to glory. It’s like from degree to degree. And this really makes people like us crazy. Because, see, we want to change. I made a decision; I want the change now! I’m working on being patient; I want it now! Hey, that was a good illustration about your wife having a lousy self-image, you know? This is the way you talk in the coffee shop. You would never say that to our faces.

But you would say, Wow, I want what she got! Or, boy, could my wife use that or could I use that! And you know what you forgot? We talked about fifteen years of work, remember? Of renewing of the mind. Of trusting God. Of growing.

And so, the questions I want to ask are: How does change occur, when does it occur, what is our part, what is God’s part, why do we keep on sinning if they say our sins are forgiven and they are taken away? Some basic stuff.

Where does change begin? It begins, the origin and the whole progress, it begins at spiritual birth. John 3:5. “Unless a person is born again,” spiritually, “he’ll never see the kingdom of God.” What do people need to hear or believe in order to be born again? And that message is the gospel! The good news.

And that is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1 through 4 and then also, the verse that most of you know that has it in capsule form, is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world,” – remember this? “that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever would believe,” or, “trust in Him shouldn’t perish, but have everlasting life.”

That is the message that must be believed for a spiritual birth to occur. What is the biblical term for all of this? It’s called, salvation. The clearest understanding is in Romans chapter 1 through 5. And in parentheses, what we are talking really about here is justification.

It’s a word used in Scripture. “Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God.” That’s Romans 5:1. Now, what is justification? Some of you are starting to turn me off. You’re thinking, It’s a big word! I’ve never heard words like that! And a lot of you are thinking, That’s an old word.

What is the definition of it? It is twofold. Justification is a coin. On the one side, definition, it’s a legal declaration of our standing before God. It’s: God looks at you and He is going to make a legal judgment. You have sinned. And then He looks at Christ’s work on the cross and He is going to take your sin and place it on the cross and look at you because now you are pure and His legal standing will be, “I declare you innocent. I declare you forgiven.” It’s a legal thing.

And then after He takes away your sin, He flips over the coin and He imputes the righteousness of Christ to your standing. And this is a terrible illustration but it communicates for me.

You know the Star Trek deals? When they get there and they go, Bzzzzzzzzz, “Beam me up.” And then some of the really weird ones, have you seen one of the weird ones where this guy, he goes, Bzzzzzzzzz, and another person comes into his body? Have you seen some of those? Right? Okay. The imputation of the righteousness of Christ is like that.

What He does is He takes away your sin legally. We’re not talking just experience. We’ll get to that in a second. But He legally takes your sin, puts it as far as the east is from the west, and then, Bzzzzzzzzz, He imputes, or pours forth and puts in you the righteousness of Christ so that the old Sunday school term, justification, it’s just as if I didn’t sin.

And you possess the very righteousness of Christ. That’s what happens at salvation.

Now, the time, when does it begin? It begins at a point in time, the moment a person repents, turns away from whatever he is trusting, and believes in Christ. A point in time.

The basis of it, it’s by grace through faith, “For by grace we are saved through faith – it’s not of yourselves, it’s a gift of God – not as a result of works, lest any man should boast. Regarding sin, it deals with your guilt and the penalty of your sin. That’s critical. Your guilt is gone! And the penalty is gone. The means of grace? It’s the gospel as you hear it or you see it in the lives of others. It’s the Spirit’s convicting ministry, John 16. He’ll convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment. And it’s creation. Creation lets us know there is a God that we are accountable to.

And then finally, what is our response? Our response to the gospel is faith. We believe it, and that always leads to obedience. And so, trust and obey, that old hymn, is still pretty accurate. “If any man is in Christ, salvation, he is a new creature. The old things,” progressively, “pass away. New things come.” That is your standing. That’s called, salvation or justification. You got it?

How does it continue? How does it grow? Spiritual growth. 1 Peter 2:2, “Like newborn babes long,” or, “crave for the pure milk of God’s Word, so that by it you may grow with regard to your salvation.” So, this isn’t just an automatic – God doesn’t zap you and then leave you alone and say, “Go, baby, go!”

But Galatians 2:20, in a nutshell, gives us a good picture of what it is. Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ,” historical fact, Romans 6, “nevertheless, I live.” I’m still living in my – he says – “There is my position and that’s what it is based on. I have been crucified with Christ. Nevertheless, I live.”

“Yet, not I, but Christ lives in me.” You got it? “And the life I live,” experientially, “I live by faith in the One who loved me and gave Himself for me.” And so, in a nutshell, what he is saying is the Christian life is not trying harder. The Christian life is understanding what Christ did on the cross and the whole teaching on this is in Romans 6 through 8. Romans 6 are the facts, Romans 7 is the struggle, and Romans 8 is the deliverance in the Spirit.

And so here he gives it to us. “I live by faith, in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.” It’s exchanging my life. I’ll give it to you in a different way a little bit later. This is called, sanctification. This is really progressive sanctification.

It’s a continuous process of becoming more and more righteous or holy in daily experience. This is our state. Now, let me say something for some of you. Some of you have prayed to receive Christ about two hundred times, because you don’t understand the difference between justification or salvation and sanctification. Once you ask Christ in your life, repent, and you are genuinely born again, His Spirit dwells in you, you are legally forgiven.

Now, at that point, a progressive process of ups and downs, the Spirit living in you, progressively wants to make you, in your daily life, what is true of you in your standing before God.

And so, the Spirit works in you. So, you are going to sin at times, you are going to blow it, and that’s why there is 1 John 1:9. When you blow it, you say, Oh, God, I have sinned. I confess my sin, and He says, “Well, I am faithful and I am just to forgive you your sin and to cleanse you from all unrighteousness.”

This has to do with salvation. This has to do with your fellowship with God. I have met people that every time they sin they think they have to invite Christ back into their lives. He never leaves! But the fellowship gets broken.

It’s a continuous, ongoing process. What time does it begin? At salvation. And it continues until death or the Rapture. The basis of this, get this, it’s by grace through faith. The argument of the book of Galatians is this: However you get saved, that’s how you walk. However you get saved, that’s how you walk.

And so, what he told them, he says, “Who bewitched you? Was it out of self-effort that you saw the power of the Spirit working in your life? No!” So then he goes on regarding sin and sanctification, the Spirit deals with the power of sin in my life, not the penalty. Not your guilt. It’s the power and the key passage there is Romans 6.

The means of grace, how do you become more holy? Well, one thing you do, the body of Christ, spiritual gifts of others, rubbing off against one another, loving one another, personal time with God. The ordinances as we take baptism and the Lord’s Supper, there are pictures and God gives us grace as we watch and examine our hearts.

The Spirit’s convicting and empowering. He just changes us. When there is something wrong, if you’re open, He’ll let you know. And then, finally, the practice of the disciplines: prayer, the Word, silence, solitude, coming away from the world, the practice of spiritual disciplines to train yourself in righteousness.

And then what is our response? It’s the same: faith and obedience. I trust God, I identify myself, I am in Christ, I have the power, His Spirit does it, I yield myself to Him.

At the end of Romans 6, he gives us a little acronym, not acronym, but there are three little words. He says, “Know this is true,” or reckon it. “Know it, then reckon it,” or consider it to be true, “and then present yourselves as members as those who have been actually crucified are now alive from the dead.”

And so that is where it begins, this is how it continues, where does it all end?

This is Romans 8:30 through 39, “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. We have been predestined, foreordained that we should not only be sanctified but also glorified.”

And glorified here, a good key passage is 1 John 3:2. 1 John 3:2 says, “We do not know what we will be like, but this is what we know. That when we see Him, we will be like Him.”

See, finally, the final result as we are in the definition, you are going to get a glorified body, you’re going to see Christ face-to-face in heaven, and that is your destination. One day, you will see Him, and you will be changed forever.

This begins, in terms of time, at death or Rapture and lasts forever. The basis: It is because of grace forever. And how does it deal with sin? It removes it. There is no sin in heaven. It’s gone forever.

The means of grace is a face-to-face revelation of Christ. And our response will be worship. Practically speaking, you know what you all need to hear and I need to hear on this one? Practically speaking, there are a lot of us that want this in this life, and you’re never going to get it. You’re so hard on yourselves all the time. I don’t mean playing with sin.

But you want life to be perfect, you want everyone to treat you right, you want tit for tat. If you do good, then people should do good for you. You want peace, prosperity, and everything to fall into place. And you are in a fallen world, marred by sin, yours and other people’s. And there are a lot of things that God has promised in His Word that you will never get, and I will never get, until we get there, and that’s why it is a blessed hope.

And so instead of trying to get everything out of this life and getting frustrated, we should walk in the Spirit, be led by the Spirit, and realize, Until you get there, on the other side, there is no perfection anywhere. So lighten up.

Four key concepts to put this together and, by the way, before we do that, I wrote a little note to myself. This is an overview. If you would like to understand salvation and the basis for living a holy life, True Spirituality, by Francis Schaeffer, you’ll want to look at it. Great impact in my life in understanding what we have talked about tonight.

If the area of changing and growing in holiness, this is by Jerry Bridges of NavPress: The Pursuit of Holiness.

It’s excellent, practical, theologically sound. If the whole area of the disciplines: solitude, prayer, the Word – How do you train yourself in discipline? I don’t know what you’re talking about. The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard, excellent book. The final book, it’s an overview, 30 Days to Understanding the Christian Life, by Max E. Anders. He gives a big picture, you read a chapter a day, and you get that under your belt and you’ll understand a lot of what is going on.

What I am trying to do is whet your appetite and realize that this is a long-haul issue.

Now, summarizing in a little bit different fashion, and then I think you can take it home and you can look up all the verses, it makes a great Bible study.

Four concepts about change. First, spirituality is the life of Christ. Paul said, “For me, to live is Christ; to die is gain.” We read earlier – what? He prayed that you would allow Christ to dwell deeply in your life.

Secondly, spirituality is the life of Christ reproduced in the believer. It’s not you trying harder to get more like God. It’s you allowing the Spirit of God to take what is true of you and see it produced or reproduced, by the Spirit of God, in your life.

Three, spirituality is the life of Christ reproduced in the believer by the Holy Spirit. That’s who does it. That’s who changes you. You have a responsibility, and we’re going to hit that just as we end. But it’s a yielding to what is true, dependent on God’s grace.

And then finally, spirituality is the life of Christ reproduced in the believer, by the Holy Spirit, in obedience or response to the Word of God. And you just see over and over in Scripture, there is no way that you change apart from the Word of God filling your heart and your mind and transforming your thinking. That’s how it works.

Max Anders puts it in a little formula that I think is worthy. He has: The work of God, under conclusion, WKG, the work of God, what Christ did on the cross, your identification with Him, His Spirit dwelling in you, plus the Word of God, that’s the raw material, plus personal commitment. We have to respond, don’t we? Romans 12:1. Plus other believers, the role of other believers in bringing about change and maturity, plus time and trials.

All these things are true but you know what? It just takes time. And usually it takes a lot of hard knocks. I hate to tell you this, but the most holy, godly people I know are the people who have been through the hardest of times, and have responded to God in the midst of them. That equals maturity.

You can try as hard as you want, but you need to develop a training system of getting into the Scriptures, a training system of learning to respond when your tongue tells you something came out of your heart that isn’t right. A training system of prayer, of fellowship. A training of grace and discipline, of learning to yield to the Spirit and over and over, over time, like a muscle, as you learn to do it, what happens? You grow.

The issue isn’t trying harder. The issue is training in grace and dependence upon the Lord.