Desiring Christian Transformation: The Ontological Change at New Birth

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Christian transformation: a goal oft-mentioned, yet little understood and maybe even less experienced. However scholars interpret the significance of John Wesley’s Aldersgate moment, most folk in the Wesleyan family have heard the story and recognize it as an example of the powerful change that Christ can effect in us. Add in a few testimonies from people we know or have heard and one can feel a powerful yearning, even while doubting that such a change could ever happen to us.

Just what transforms us? And what in us is transformed? To answer, let’s talk first about the image of God. We can quote the appropriate passages from Genesis 1 and 2, with support from elsewhere, but let’s try to fill in the bare concept with help from Mr. Wesley again, where we find an apt summary in his sermon, “The New Birth:”

The foundation of [the new birth] lies near as deep as the creation of the world; in the scriptural account whereof we read, “And God,” the three-one God, “said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him:” (Gen. 1:26, 27:) — Not barely in his natural image, a picture of his own immortality; a spiritual being, endued with understanding, freedom of will, and various affections; — nor merely in his political image, the governor of this lower world, having “dominion over the fishes of the sea, and over all the earth;” — but chiefly in his moral image; which, according to the Apostle, is “righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. 4:24.) In this image of God was man made.

All three of these dimensions of the image of God operate interactively with one another and all three are involved in transformation. Notice, though, that Mr. Wesley lifts up the moral aspect of the image of God as chiefly what is affected by the transformation that new birth brings.

The moral image has to do with more than simply doing right and avoiding wrong. Very importantly, it involves our desire for what is good and beautiful. We are created to desire, to attach to an object of love.  Desire inclines us to pursue, to seek, to attach, to certain goods. God created us in just this way. This is the moral aspect of the image of God in us.

The ultimate good, of course, is the Triune God, our Source and All. Any good that usurps God’s place undermines the soul. This is exactly what the power of sin does. Sin inclines our desires in the wrong directions and we use our God-given abilities in ways that repudiate God’s purposes.

To gain a proper sense about Christian transformation, then, we need to keep these basic truths firmly in mind. God created us with certain (good) inclinations that develop into full-blown desires. Those tendencies and desires are misshapen by sin. Reflecting on our lives, we easily recognize this struggle with conflicting desires. Though the image of God remains in us, through sin it is distorted, bent out of shape. Our understanding is darkened and we aim at the wrong objects of desire.

But, of course, God does not leave us in this sad state. Through penitent trust in Christ, we are restored to a relationship of love and acceptance with God our Father. And – here we get to our main point – through the work of God’s Spirit, our desires change. We are reoriented toward the things of God, toward life in Christ. Though we continue to struggle with sin, everything nonetheless becomes new: a new understanding of the world and our life in it and new desires that re-calibrate our dream, plans and priorities.

In Christian transformation, we begin to notice that what once attracted us now repels us. We understand more clearly. We can see temptation for what it is, either a weakness of the flesh or an overt attempt by Screwtape to throw us off the path of holiness. Conversely, what once perhaps seemed unattractive about the Christian life now beckons. How many times have you heard someone testify to a newfound love for reading the Bible – a hunger for God’s Word – upon entry into this new life in Christ?  “I hungered to read the Bible.  I couldn’t get enough.” What changed? Literally, everything.

When our understanding fundamentally changes and we see the world from the standpoint of salvation; when our core desires change; when – oriented in this new direction – we begin to engage the practices of the faith on the path of discipleship, then we see the ontological change – a transformation of our very being – shine through.

When our thoughts, desires and dispositions begin to show evidence that we see the world through Christ’s eyes, that our hearts are touched by the things that touch the heart of God, that our sense of good and evil – our desires for the good and our repugnance of the evil – and our use of resources to work for the good and to help organize society, then we can see and say that we are being transformed, that we are undergoing an ontological change, a change in our very being. The Agent of that change is the Holy Spirit, working in our thoughts and desires, renewing the image of God in us.

Of course, we often don’t experience such change so clean cut or clear. We continue to struggle with murky, semi-hidden motives and desires that we know do not match God’s holy will for our lives.  But fundamentally, in our core, we are different. Because the Spirit of God operates in and on us, not coercively, but still powerfully.

In order to keep our eyes on the prize of full transformation, we need to stay oriented toward these basic truths:  We are sinners created in the image of God.  Christ – the full revelation and exemplar of the image of God – became human in order to show us the way. He made the atoning sacrifice that opens that way to life eternal. Christ has sent his Spirit, the Spirit of the Triune God, to prompt and guide our thoughts, inclinations, desires, motives, dreams and plans.

We are headed somewhere in the Christian life, but we don’t take the trip on autopilot. We have to pay attention: (1) to the vision established by God, (2) to the distractions of our own flesh (desires, inclinations and choices contrary to God’s will) and (3) to the steady, faithful, consistent and constant operations of the Holy Spirit in our thinking, desiring and acting. And God will grant to us and instill in us the beauty of holiness. Thanks be to God!

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Dr. Stephen Rankin is a pastor, campus minister, professor, and chaplain, with particular interests in connecting sound thinking with practice of Christian discipleship and ministry. His focus is positive Christian witness and helping both individual Christians and groups (congregations, campus ministry units) develop biblically-sound, culturally-engaged ministries.

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