Does Anyone Ever Really Change?

As someone working primarily in marital and/or substance abuse ministries at The Crossing, almost all of the people that I spend time with are very much genuinely interested in change. They already are, by and large, committed to the idea that “something has got to give.” Perhaps the change they believe is needed is someone else’s, and they are not all that interested in change for themselves, personally. Whatever the scenario, the question that seems to weigh heavily on everyone’s mind is, “Is personal change and renewal really even a possibility?”

When the situation has involved years of pain, abuse, betrayal and/or sorrow as a result of sin, this question is particularly poignant. Particularly whenever people ask this question – in whatever form – what they are really asking is whether or not a person’s heart-level motivations can be redeemed and renewed, or (as many fear) are we instead forever enslaved to the personal-evil treadmill that we find ourselves walking on?

Of course, it can readily be demonstrated that it is possible to change what’s going on at a surface level, and it is even possible to enforce change in someone else’s life as well. Initiating a divorce, for example, forces severe, negative life changes on several people – not just the two spouses. Or, if someone has been convicted of a crime, removing them from society with a long prison sentence can also effectively enforce a surface-level change. In both cases, however, it is all too possible to endure surface-level changes – desirable or otherwise – and be left absolutely the same as we were before.

When asking about the possibility of change, then, what most people are really after is a straight, no-nonsense answer to the question of whether or not anyone’s root-level desires and proclivities can “really” be reached with the truth of the gospel. “This guy’s been like this forever…why should I think he’ll ever be any different?”

Now add to this the deep confusion caused by conversion experiences that, after a few months, seem to “wear off,” or the perception that a true conversion is “a bit too conveniently timed.” I like to use an analogy – borrowed from the DivorceCare curriculum – that compares insincere faith to whitewashing a rotting barn; from the highway, the barn looks pretty good! But when you get up close and start scratching at the wood with your fingers, the inner rot causes it to immediately give way under a more-careful inspection.

As we attempt to determine the authenticity of heart- and soul-level change in another person, I really think it’s worth bearing a few things in mind. It’s also important that we immediately make a distinction between 1) gospel truths and, 2) the individuals who claim them.

The Truths of Scripture are unshakeable, “true truth,” not subject to doubt or second-guessing. The individuals who assert these truths for themselves are in an entirely different category of reliability. Someone who claims Jesus but continues to betray their marriage vows by committing adultery, for example, doesn’t invalidate the gospel truth, but rather the sincerity of their faith. After all, Judas Iscariot walked with Christ for three years, served as treasurer for the disciples, and witnessed all of the same miracles that Peter did.

So, with that, four quick thoughts:

  1. Denying the possibility of authentic, soul-level change is nothing short of a denial of Scripture. Again, it is important to distinguish between what the Bible says and how different people in our lives are applying those truths…or perhaps further blaspheming the Lord by attributing His work to a self-applied sugar-coating glossed over the manipulations of our own hearts. If you deny the possibility of soul-level change, then you have to tear all the letters of Paul, Peter, and John out of your New Testament. (And get rid of Acts 9 while you’re at it.)

  2. Authentic soul-level changes will stand the test of time. In simple terms, if I have genuinely been reborn in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), then my conversion experience is permanent. Even if all of the outer trappings of my life should all fall apart, even if everyone I love should desert me and/or become an enemy, my life in Christ will remain (Colossians 3:3-4). I will be kept by Christ, period (1 Peter 1:3-5).

  3. Soul-level change is not contingent on the response of others. The person who has been given a new heart will certainly be concerned to maintain and/or repair relationships, but the restoration of those relationships will not be ultimate. In other words, the renewed heart actively seeks to redeem and restore, but does not hang the legitimacy of its faith on a desired outcome. Whenever you find a place in your heart that essentially says, “I can’t believe that Jesus is my Lord if such-and-such happens,” then you have effectively made “such-and-such” your functional Savior; Jesus has been demoted to “supporting player” in your personal plan of redemption. (See Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods for an in-depth study of this all-too-common phenomenon.)

  4. Authentic change stands up to scrutiny. The truly-transformed person does not fear inspection (Psalm 139:23), exhortation and/or rebuke (2 Timothy 3:16-17; Proverbs 15:31-32). The man or woman who has been truly transformed is an open book (Matthew 5:33-37) and regularly submits to examination to ensure that they have not strayed from Christ (2 Corinthians 13:5; Proverbs 11:14). In fact, the authentic believer welcomes examination, and sees it as a potential opportunity to grow closer to the Lord. Of course, none of this comes as an overnight change, but more and more a heart captured by Christ will seek to more often live in the light, work to speak truth and live openly, etc.

Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. These four simple principles are written from the perspective of someone who works in ministries that regularly bring me into contact with people who typically have a fairly serious interest in “obfuscating the truth,” or at least diverting my attention away from their sins and onto the sins of someone else. As a result, I tend to place a fairly high value on the idea that real, Christ-driven change will bear fruit over time. This longer-term view can sometimes be frustrating when temporal realities are pressing for decisions to be made. (“Do we get back together…or divorce?”)

So, does anyone ever really change? I mean, really change?

Yes, of course they do. The radically-transformed life has been, throughout the ages, one of the most powerful apologetics for the Truth of Christ and the reality of the work of His Holy Spirit in the hearts of humankind. When we allow ourselves to believe that Christ is not powerful enough to change our hearts, or at least the heart of this particular person, we have an awful lot of faithful Christians to explain away. Chances are strong that you personally know someone whose life has been dramatically changed, whose trajectory toward death and destruction was inexplicably altered toward faith in Christ and service to others. That certainly is John Newton‘s story, and many, many others.

Jesus calls us to be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16). I have to think that there were a ton of frightened Christians who labored mightily to believe that Saul, the same guy who had been imprisoning and killing off early Christians, had been miraculously transformed into the Apostle Paul. It was probably only after Paul gladly endured suffering for the sake of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:21-33; Colossians 1:24-29) that the authenticity of his faith was assured in the minds of many. While we are called to give those around us the benefit of the doubt when they claim a renewed heart in Christ, it just seems wise to let time (and troubles!) flesh out the truth. As believers, then, we can gladly welcome all who come to faith…we just might be wise not to “hand over the car keys” for a bit.

Matthew 10:26-27 (ESV)
“So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.”

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