This is running as my church’s August 2014 newsletter article…
17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. ~ 2 Corinthians 3:17-18
In John 3, a Pharisee named Nicodemus approached Jesus in the cover of night, likely from a desire not to be seen by the other religious leaders who wanted to silence Jesus. Nicodemus sought to flatter Jesus by telling him, “We know that you’re a teacher who’s come from God. Nobody can do these signs that you’re doing, unless God is with him.” Almost seeming to ignore the Pharisee’s statement, Jesus replied, “Let me tell you the solemn truth. Unless someone has been born from above, they won’t be able to see God’s kingdom.”
Given the Roman occupation of Israel at that time, the Pharisees longed to see a fulfillment of the Old Testament promises of God to rescue his people and establish his kingdom. They just longed for it in the wrong ways. Jesus’ statement penetrated to the heart of what Nicodemus desired as a Pharisee and a Jew. Jesus, however, made a statement which would have (and did) shock a man from a group known for their religious piety and zeal: yes, the kingdom is coming, but if you want to be a part of it then you will have to become a fundamentally different person.
This idea is not limited to Jesus’ words to a single Pharisee in the shroud of darkness. Rather, it is a theme we find woven throughout the entire story of scripture. Spiritually, every single person lives in the darkness, their hearts and minds veiled by sin, their passions enslaved, and their lives at enmity towards God (see: John 8:30-36; Romans 3:9-18, 6:15-23; 2 Corinthians 3:7-18; and Ephesians 2:1-10). That is, until they have an encounter with Jesus that leads them away from a life snared in sin to a freedom found only in Christ (again: see the above passages which also speak of this).
In John 3, Jesus called this being “born from above” or “born again.” Confused, Nicodemus asked Jesus how someone can be born in such a way, especially if they are already alive in this world—surely they cannot “go back a second time into the mother’s womb”? Jesus replied that this new birth is not physical but spiritual. It is something that comes from God.
The Bible uses several other terms and images to describe this very thing. In a vivid Old Testament vision, Ezekiel saw a valley filled with dusty, dry bones that suddenly grew muscle, ligaments, and skin before receiving breath from God (Ezekiel 37). In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, Paul referred to this as freedom and transformation. Just two chapters later, he talked about it terms of new creation (5:17). In 1 Peter, the apostle speaks about it the same as Jesus calling it a second birth into a living hope (1:3). Then, in a flurry of descriptions, he spoke of it as a shift from darkness to light; and drawing on Hosea, he wrote that those who were once not God’s people have become God’s people (2:9-10). And this is just a sample.
When we talk about the Christian life, we need to think of it as just that: life, and specifically, new life. Far too often, people have gone through some ritual at some point in their lives. They have said a prayer to receive Jesus and confess sins as led by some preacher. They have climbed into a pool of water and have been immersed in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. They have had an emotionally moving experience at a revival meeting or a youth camp. They have sat in church pews, placed money in the offering plates, studied Sunday School material, and taught Vacation Bible School.
Yet in their hearts, minds, and lives, there has been no difference—no transformation.
Nicodemus was like this when he first came to Jesus. He had a religious education, expectation, and leadership position. He jumped through hoops and went through the motions. Yet if something in his life didn’t truly change, he would find himself eternally outside the kingdom of God and lost in sin. Jesus describes such people in a parable in Matthew 13:1-23. These are people with hearts that are like soil which is not fertile enough ground to produce lasting fruit. When the seed (God’s word, the gospel) falls upon this ground, the seed seems at first to be productive. It sprouts and starts to shoot up, but then with time it withers and fades. This is because either the soil was too rocky and lacked depth (they run from troubles and persecutions caused by identifying with Jesus); or there are too many weeds and thorns that the seed is choked out (the world’s worries, pleasures, or wealth take a greater position than Jesus in a person’s life).
The only way we can have a fruitful life, a transformed life, founded in Christ is if our hearts are like good soil, ready to receive with an environment conducive to growth. This, again, is a work of God.
The only way to have a transformed life, to be born again and to be saved, is to experience it by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Certainly God’s grace, which we receive through faith alone, brings forgiveness by removing our sin from our lives but it also does much more than this. Paul wrote in Titus 2:11-14 that grace “teaches us that we should turn our backs on ungodliness and the passions of the world, and should live sober, just, and devout lives in the present age.” This, as we long for the return of Christ and live eager to do good works in our present world. God’s grace itself transforms us.
We cannot cause life transformation, we can only receive it with arms open wide as we look to Jesus as our great hope, our Savior-King. Once we receive it, however, by God’s Holy Spirit living within us we can work to manifest this new life as a daily reality and show evidence that our hearts truly are different. Paul said, “Work out your salvation…because God is at work in you” (Philippians 2:12-13). Jesus said the one who has a heart of good soil and receives the seed of the word “will bear fruit: one will produce a hundred times over, another sixty, and another thirty times over” (Matthew 13:23).
The goal of transformation is to become more and more like Jesus in our character. Fruit is best explained as the character change and growth brought about by the Holy Spirit, so that we live in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-26).
With the Spirit inside, the way we produce this fruit is by spending time in the Bible and prayer, setting our hearts and minds on the things of God—the things that are good (John 15:7-8, and Philippians 4:4-9). It is also through spending time in the community of God’s people, the church, where we fellowship together, hold one another accountable, and worship God together (Colossians 3:12-17; Hebrews 3:12-13 and 10:19-25).
The evidence of this will be that we become more loving, more joyful, more patient, more kind, more a display of God’s goodness, more faithful, more gentle, and more self-disciplined. As this happens in our lives, the hope will overflow and become contagious. Transformation makes us different and those around us will see this difference. This is why Peter wrote we should always be ready to give a gentle and respectful reply to those who ask us to “explain the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
So consider: Has your life been truly transformed by Jesus and do others see this?