Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 2 Corinthians 5:17
One of the hallmarks of the evangelical Christian faith is that when a person becomes a Christian, is born again, trusts Christ by faith, they become a new person.
Old things pass away and all things become new. There is new life in Christ.
Are you a drunkard? Are you a thief? Are you a whore monger? Are you a drug addict? Are you a Democrat? Did you vote for Obama? Are you a murderer? Are you a child abuser? Are you an Episcopalian? Are you a Catholic? Are you a prostitute?
No matter what you have done in your life, no matter what sin you may have committed, Jesus can wipe all your sin away and give you a new life.
Simply put, Jesus changes people.
I don’t believe Jesus changes anyone.
People do change, though they do not change as often as we like to think they do. Sometimes people make dramatic course corrections in their lives and the change is quite dramatic.
But was it Jesus that changed them, or did they by an act of the will change themselves?
I realize there is all kinds of anecdotal evidence that suggests that Jesus changes people. Alcoholics set free. Drug addict’s clean. Democrats turned Republican. Sexual deviants set free. Adulterers and fornicators now living a life of moral purity.
But how do we know that it was Jesus that changed them? Can we point to any empirical data that says for certain that Jesus changed them? Perhaps they got tired of the life they were living and wanted to change it. Often, when people want to change their life they go to church. After all churches are in the life-changing business. So the desire to change links up with the place you go to change your life and viola Jesus changes lives.
The unsaved are told that without Jesus change is impossible. After all, can a leopard change its spots? Of course not. It takes a supernatural, miraculous act of God for a persons life change.
Yet, there are millions of people who have made dramatic changes in their lives without Jesus being the changing force. Their lives seem to stand in direct contradiction to what the Christian church says about Jesus. What are we to make of this?
I am convinced people change because they want to. Life altering changes happen when a person realizes that they are on a destructive path and they no longer want to be on that path. By an act of the will, often with the help of others, they turn (repent) and go another direction.
Sometimes we have an epiphany. Often these epiphanies are found in a social, religious, or political context. I was a Republican for a number of years until one day I realized that what I believed about social justice did not line up with what the Republican Party believed. At that moment I went from being a right-wing Republican to a liberal Democrat. Granted much of the change was gradual but there was a moment in time where I said I once was lost but now I am found.
The same could be said concerning my defection from the Christian faith. While that defection took many years, there was a point, a moment in time, where I had a born-again experience. I was born once again into the family called humanity. There is nothing mystical about this change. There was no Jesus, no God, and no church. I made a choice. Just like when I made a choice to follow Jesus, I made a choice not to follow him anymore.
We all make choices. Sometimes we make choices that alter and change our lives forever. There is no need to spiritualize these changes.
On the other hand, people do not change as often as we think they do. Having pastored thousands of people over the years, and watched scores of people trust Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, I know that change does not occur as often as the Christian church would have us believe.
The reason for this is quite simple. We are what we are. Change is hard, and in many cases impossible. I am 52 years of age and in many ways I am no different than I was at age 18. I’m certainly more experienced, more cynical, and more jaded about life now than I was at age 18, but many of my character traits have remained unchanged over all these years.
I am moody. I’m temperamental. I’m cynical. I’m a half glass full type of person. I am easily depressed. I’m quick with my words and quick with my judgments. As much as I try to change some of these character traits, I, for the most part, remain just like I always have been.
My politics have changed. My religious beliefs have changed. My worldview has changed. But underneath all of this I remain fundamentally the same person I always have been.
One key to a successful marriage is to realize you can’t change your spouse. For years I tried to change my wife. You know, those annoying character traits that drive you crazy.
My wife is pretty forgetful. I finally got her to write things on a list and now she forgets where she put the list. I am a person that can have 12 things to do and I’m able to make a mental list of those things. I don’t need to write them down. (Though getting older has forced me to write things down a bit more)
Somewhere along the way I realized that I can’t change my wife into me. She is who she is, and I am who I am. We each have character flaws that annoy the hell out of each other. We have learned to accept each other as we are.
I wonder how much better the Christian church would be if that’s how they treated each other. Instead of a cookie-cutter approach, that says if you are born again this is what your life looks like, I wonder how much better the church would be if every person was allowed to be who and what they really are.
Over the years I pastored a number of people who lived secret lives of deception. They were forced to. We preached Jesus makes all things new. Yet, their lives were anything but new. They had a religious experience to be sure. They believed something had happened to them. But, to a large degree their lives remained the same.
The sins that they practiced openly before were driven underground. I remember one lady who testified before the whole Church that she had quit smoking. After all Jesus makes all things new and that includes giving up cigarettes. We were all quite proud of her. Unfortunately it was all a lie. She never quit smoking at all. She couldn’t. She was addicted and all the Jesus in the world couldn’t help her with her addiction.
If I’m honest I lived my life the same way when I was a pastor, when I was a Christian. I knew what was expected of me. I knew what the new life in Christ was supposed to look like. The Bible was the standard. So outwardly I conformed. I looked the part. I played the game with the best of them.
But inwardly, I was still the same old Bruce. Yes Jesus was my savior, but Bruce was still the master. While many things did change in my life, especially around the periphery, I did not change much at the fundamental level of my being. I realize some people will say this is a clear sign that I was never born again to start with. Perhaps. I am more inclined to believe that every Christian is, and was, just like me.
When we join any group we are expected to conform to the standard of the group. In this regard the Christian church is no different than any other social or cultural group. People want to belong, they want to feel a part of, so they conform to the expected standard.
Newspapers are littered with stories about Christians gone bad. While many people find these stories quite shocking I do not.
Jesus is portrayed as a life changer. Jesus fixes what ails you. Jesus is the answer to your problem. When a person becomes a Christian they are told that they have a new life. Everything is now new. It sounds great, but unfortunately it is a false bill of goods.
The new convert goes home excited after finding new life in Jesus. For a time they have what is called the honeymoon experience with Jesus. Everything seems to go right. Prayers seen answered. The Bible seems written just for them. Every church service seems like manna sent from heaven by God.
Then one day reality sets in. Desires and habits start to reassert themselves. Those character traits, drowning in a sea of Bible preaching, come up for air and begin making themselves known once again.
At this point the new convert panics. “I thought my life was supposed to be new with Jesus”, they find themselves asking. They often find themselves being pulled back into their old life, their old ways, their old habits and desires.
So they seek out counsel. They talk to the pastor or other church members about the problem they’re having. The new convert is assured that this is quite normal and that they just need to keep resisting Satan and denying the flesh.
This battle goes on for quite some time until one day the new convert realizes that this is an impossible way to live, and at this moment a life of deception begins.
The façade is built for all to see but inwardly dwells the same person. For some people this will be their life until the day they die. Outwardly they will look just like every other Christian. Outwardly they will do what Christians do. But inwardly they remained just who they always have been.
It seems Jesus is pretty good at changing clothing but not so good at changing the inner person.
The church would be better served if everyone could just be themselves. Broken, feeble, frail, marred, and sinful. The church would be a better place if losers were allowed to be members. As it stands now Jesus makes everyone a winner. The church is a place for overcomers. After all don’t we all have victory in Jesus?
I’m quite convinced that Jesus changes no one. If your life is changed it is because you chose to make a change. You chose a different path. You chose a different lifestyle. You may have found inspiration from the church, the Bible, or the life of Jesus, but none of those things changed you. You changed because you chose to change.
I’m sure this will make many a Christian howling mad. But it is how I see things from my seat in the pew.