I decided to become a minister in a therapist’s office. As a new Christian and mental health counselor, I was startled by the seemingly endless stream of evangelical Christians coming to our practice who shared one thing in common: They didn’t look anything like Jesus.
What especially troubled me was the fact that there didn’t seem to be any relationship between the number of years someone had attended church and their character transformation. How was it possible to be a Christian for years and even decades without taking on the attitudes, thoughts, and actions of Jesus?
Several questions soon became irrepressible. Why were so many of my good Christian clients not truly good? Why weren’t years of church attendance resulting in Christlikeness? And why weren’t Christians finding sustainable life-change in their churches? Attempting to answer these questions ultimately became my life’s work.
Two decades later, questions of transformation are suddenly the key questions of our time. What began as alarming surveys documenting the lack of virtue among Christian laity has now exploded as shocking public scandals among large numbers of our clergy. The victims of our sexual abuse, misogyny, larceny, and misuse of power have become too loud and numerous to ignore.
Millions of disillusioned church-goers, not to mention the secular culture at large, are all asking: “How can a faith system be right if it is not good?” The crisis now facing the evangelical church is not primarily one of belief—it is a crisis of character.
This should not come as a surprise. Jesus taught us that the real issues of life flow out of the heart. Knowing about the truth is not the same as the true condition of our inner lives. To know the root of our heart condition, we have to be honest about the fruit of our lives. According to Jesus, those who love Him come to obey His commands.
Tragically, the necessity of a transformed life is often missing from popular evangelical gospel narratives. When repentance and faith in Jesus are reduced to primarily being sorry for sin in order to go to heaven after death, then the vision or ultimate aim for the Christian life is largely a matter of something that happens later. What happens in the meantime—including obeying Jesus—is logically optional, especially when assurance of salvation is promised as an automatic guarantee of having believed.
Contrast this vision of salvation with that of Jesus and the apostles. Jesus tells us that those who love Him obey His commands, and His final words commission His disciples to learn to do everything He taught, empowered by His abiding presence.
The apostle John picks up this theme in his first epistle, writing so that disciples can know that they have assurance of salvation, which he then defines as an outcome of faith, love, and obedience. The apostle Paul punctuates this vision of salvation when he tells us that God’s predetermined purpose in salvation is for every Christian to be “conformed to the image of his Son.” And this is echoed by the apostle Peter, who tells us that those who fail to add virtue to their faith are “nearsighted and blind.” The New Testament writers are agreed—people are saved by God’s grace, which empowers them to live a godly life.
Making Christlikeness the goal of salvation is not legalism or salvation by works. It is what it means to “participate in the divine nature,” to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” and to “set your minds on things above” (2 Pet. 1:4; Phil. 2:12; Col. 3:2). Grace is opposed to earning, but not to effort. In fact, the gift of grace includes the desire and energy to obey God. It is the fuel for the process of transformation. The trajectory of this vision of salvation leads us to cultivating a life message of following Christ from the inside out.
Jesus told a story about how all of this works in our daily lives. A businessman finds a priceless treasure that is buried in a field. With great anticipation, the man gladly sells all of his possessions in order to acquire enough money to buy that field. Then in joy, he purchases the field . . . in order to obtain the treasure as his own (Matt. 13:44).
This story highlights the three big moves that lead to transformation of our lives as disciples of Jesus:
- First, we discover how valuable the treasure of life with God really is, and obtaining it becomes the primary vision for our lives.
- Second, we form an overriding passion to participate in it, and doing whatever it takes to acquire life with God becomes the organizing intention of our lives.
- Finally, we begin to take action steps to prioritize laying hold of the treasure of life with God, even when it involves great sacrifice—this use of means enables us to cultivate a life rich toward God.
According to Dallas Willard, this “V.I.M. pattern” (vision leading to intention leading to means) is the vim and vigor of a disciple of Jesus. Each part of this pattern is vital to transformation, and as it repeats over and over, the character of a disciple is progressively changed to be like Jesus. Or, as the apostle Paul puts it, “Christ is formed” in us (Gal. 4:19).
The good news is that Jesus not only knows the way to heaven, but He also knows the way to an abundant life. This eternal kind of life begins now, with the transformation of our lives to be like Him. He leads all who follow Him into an interactive life with God marked by peace and love and joy. These fruits of the Holy Spirit do not mature in us by wishing or by trying, but rather through following and training as His students. Disciples learn from Jesus how to be like Him as they imitate Him in every aspect of living.
The widespread collapse of Christlikeness in the lives of the people and institutions that call themselves Christian is more than a cause for embarrassment and sadness. We must now ask ourselves whether our definition of what it means to be a Christian can bear the weight of life and reality. It is time for a fresh hearing for Jesus in which His call to faith and discipleship is heard anew in our day. The power of Christ’s life comes to the world through the life message of His people.
When you hear about the “fall” of various high-profile pastors, what goes through your mind?
“This didn’t just happen.” That is, these leaders didn’t trip and fall overnight. We have been in the process of becoming who we now are, and we are now in the process of becoming who we will be. So when I hear of these tragic things, I immediately think that something must have gone wrong much earlier. Thus, the issue to address isn’t just the crisis of what they fell into; it is the formation of their attitudes, motives, and feelings that shaped their character, which led to their fall.
A lot of us are worried that we might be next—that “if so-and-so could fall, what does that mean for me?”
Well, we do need to take that seriously. Paul wrote to the Galatians that when we are helping people who have been overcome by sin, we must “be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself” (Gal. 6:1). The key here is not to wait until the moment of your own temptation, and then try really hard not to fall. Instead, we have to be cultivating continual attentiveness to Christ, because we are changed as we are with Him. There’s a big difference between focusing on “not falling” and focusing on “being with Him.” The goal, after all, isn’t simply to hold ourselves back from sinning; it’s to really live for and love Christ. It’s to be adding to our faith, as 2 Peter 1 describes. After sharing a pathway of Christ-empowered character development, Peter says, “The more you grow like this, the more productive and useful you will be in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Do these things, and you will never fall away” (vv. 8-10).
You ask for a “fresh hearing for Jesus” and His call to faith and discipleship. How do you envision this happening? Where could we start?
I’m struck by this idea that we haven’t paid enough attention to what Jesus said. All of us as Christians have pledged our allegiance to Jesus, but are we really sure we know what He taught? Perhaps we need to look again at the gospels and take some inventory.
What did Jesus say? What did He care about most? How did He respond to challenges? What were His priorities for daily life? How do we go about imitating Him?
Imagine what might change in our churches if we started to organize all of our classes and groups to develop competency in the areas of what Jesus actually said and did. It would mark an important shift from the pursuit of knowledge to the pursuit of obedience. Thinking this way might really deconstruct some of our ideas about what we prioritize in church, and even what we believe is important. Even who we pick to lead us would change, wouldn’t it?
For example, when we hire a church staff member, how much do we focus on their competency at walking the way Jesus did? How much do we observe their walk and the extent to which they are an example of imitating Jesus in every aspect of life? This was the original framework of discipleship, was it not? And this is what the “qualifications” for church leadership in the epistles are really getting at, right?
As one who grew up right in the center of old-school evangelicalism, how did you end up thinking as you do? Where did your own “fresh hearing” come from?
Honestly, I had all these questions early on, and I really started searching. I think it circles back to what I mentioned earlier—the difference between knowledge and competency. From there, I started to understand that to develop competency, a person has to “practice” . . . and suddenly the idea of spiritual disciplines started to make a lot more sense. Those disciplines are practices that help me become better at following Jesus; they aren’t ends in themselves. Just like someone learning a sport, a language, or an instrument, the spiritual practices are like the “drills” and the practice sets I do, over and over again, so that when the moment comes, the skill is there, ready, natural for me. So what would it mean to follow Jesus that way, and to seek to grow in my “how to” of following Him?