(January/February 2014 – Volume 20 Issue 1)
When we speak of discipleship or Christian maturity, it must be understood from the beginning that all spiritual transformation is a supernatural work of God. Just as the natural man cannot will himself to be born again, so the Christian is dependent upon the Lord for inward change and growth. In Ephesians 3:16-17 Paul prays for the Ephesian believers “that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith…” But before He strengthens us with power the Lord must give us new life. This new life is the result of a spiritual birth, being born again (or from above) (John 3:3), or regeneration. Titus 3:5 reads, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit…” Just as our regeneration is a supernatural work of God, so is our progressive sanctification. But the Holy Spirit does not work in a vacuum; He uses means to bring about our spiritual development and the primary means, the one most spoken of in Scripture, is the Word of God.
Romans 12:2 tells us we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Our thinking does not change unless there is new information for our minds to process. In my college days a rumor was floating around among some of the students that if you slept with your head on your text book or notes, your brain would absorb the necessary knowledge for the next day’s exam. Against my better judgment I gave this method a try once and concluded via the next day’s exam that this technique does not work. Similarly, spiritual transformation does not take place by osmosis. Apart from a renewing of our minds by means of the input of the truth of God’s Word we will not be changed. We need to take a close look at what role Scripture claims for itself in the spiritual transformation process.
Scriptures Claim to Have Transformative Powers
In our Lord’s great prayer on the night He was betrayed, as found in John 17, His thoughts were focused on His disciples. As Jesus contemplates the great struggles they will have in a world that hates them and from a devil who wants to destroy them, He asked the Father to sanctify them (John 17:17a). To sanctify is to set someone or something apart. When used in the New Testament, in the context of the Christian life, the meaning is to set apart for a holy purpose. Jesus prays that His disciples are kept separated from the polluting influences of the world around them so that they might live as the Lord intended and fulfill the mission they would be given of making disciples. Jesus goes on to clarify how they are to be sanctified when He prays, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth” (v. 17b). The battle the disciples would wage would be largely in the realm of truth. If they are compromised by a world view dominated by sinful impulses and demonic insight, they will be unfruitful in making disciples for Christ. In order to be effective in their discipleship endeavors it will be necessary for them to be saturated with truth. And Jesus makes clear that the truth He speaks of does not emerge from the culture or the wisdom of humans but from God’s Word. Their great weapon in this fight against the darkness of sin and spiritual blindness will be the “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph 6:17). Later, when Paul addresses the early church on the process of change and growth, he tells them to “lay aside the old self” and “put on the new self” and “be renewed by the spirit of your mind” (Eph 4:22-24). The renewing of our mind – the way we think, the way we process what enters our minds, the way we approach life itself, must be changed through the truth, which is found in the Word of God.
As we contemplate Scripture’s place in our spiritual development we must return for a moment to the foundational role of the Lord Himself. Second Corinthians three speaks of the hardening of the minds of the Old Testament Jews (v. 14a). Even as Paul pens his inspired epistle he says it is like they have a veil over their minds and hearts (vv. 14b, 15) that disabled the first century Jews from seeing who Christ really was. But when a person turns to Christ that veil is removed (v. 16). The believer can now see what they could not in their unregenerate state – the glory of the Lord. Paul writes, “But we all with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (v. 18). To be sure, the unbeliever can read and understand the details of Scripture. Even some scholarly and mostly accurate commentaries on the Bible have been written by non-Christians. But the unregenerate cannot comprehend the true glory of Christ, or know Him as Savior and Lord, until the spiritual veil has been removed at the moment of conversion. The unbeliever cannot grasp the gospel both because he does not have the spiritual capacity to do so, and because Satan has blinded him to the glory of Christ. Paul continues, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (4:3-4). Those who are perishing (present tense – not will perish, but are already doing so) can understand the details of Christology and soteriology, but they cannot grasp the significance of the gospel because it reveals the glory of Christ which they cannot truly see.
Due to this spiritual blindness the unbeliever is in a hopeless bind. He is blind, cannot comprehend Christ’s true nature and glory, and is in bondage to Satan – the god of this age. To add to their woes Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:1-3 that the unsaved are dead in their trespasses and sins, merely following the course of the world, are children of disobedience, enslaved to their own lusts and under the wrath of God. Our situation is indeed hopeless, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us …made us alive together with Christ…” (Eph 2:4-5). Through a supernatural work of God we have been born again – given spiritual life. In 2 Corinthians 4:6 Paul describes this spiritual transaction this way, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The very God who in the act of creation separated light from darkness, is the same God who turns on the spiritual light in our hearts so we might be able to comprehend the glory of Himself as found in His Son.
These biblical texts reveal the supernatural nature and requirement of regeneration. We cannot give ourselves new life; it is a gift from God. As Jesus said, salvation is not hard, it is impossible – apart from the intervention of God (Mark 10:27). This brings us back to the subject at hand. Now that the Lord God has removed our spiritual veil, has revealed His glory through His Son and given us new life in Him, we are in the position to be progressively transformed by the power of the Spirit through the means God supplies. In 2 Corinthians 3:18, the believer is privileged to “behold as in a mirror the glory of the Lord.” Ancient mirrors were usually made of polished metals and, unlike modern mirrors, they would lack the near perfect reflection we enjoy today. This picture communicated to the original readers that while they could now view the image of Christ it would not be with absolute perfection and clarity which remains for a future time (see 1 Cor 13:12 and 1 John 3:2). Nevertheless, we are promised that as we “behold…the glory of the Lord” we are being transformed into Christ’s image. This promise reminds us of Romans 8:28-29 that speaks of us being called, foreknown, and predestined “to become conformed to the image of His Son.” A marvelous part of God’s redemption plan is the believer’s conformity to Christ-likeness. Our Lord is not content with saving us and leaving us virtually unchanged. Rather as Christians “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph 2:10).
All of this begs the question – what means does the Holy Spirit ordain to conform us to Christ’s image? If we are being transformed into His image as we behold His glory, as promised in 2 Corinthians 3:18, just how do we go about beholding His glory? Since we do not see Him physically today how are we to see His glory so that we can be transformed? I believe God has chosen Scripture to play the role of revealing Christ’s glory to His people. Many biblical passages detail the transformational nature of the inspired text of Scripture. Our Father has chosen to use His written Word, combined with the power of His Spirit, to change us and enable us to grow toward conformity with His Son. Let’s take a closer look.
Old Testament Teachings
The New Testament unmistakably supports the above thesis, but the Old Testament is on the same page. Deuteronomy 29:29, for example, states, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the work of this Law.” Much like today, the people of Moses’ time apparently wanted to be privy to the secret counsels and will of God. Not content with what God had revealed to them, they wanted knowledge of the future and insight into God’s sovereign plans and the reasons behind His actions. Moses makes it clear that some things are for God alone and we are not invited to His inner councils. However, He has revealed many things to His people. These things, recorded by men but inspired by God, are ours forever. By this means we are able to observe His will and live accordingly.
Another favorite from the Old Testament is Psalm 19. The first six verses deal with God’s revelation through nature. The physical universe reveals certain things about God such as His glory and creative powers. Romans 1:18-20 adds that the Lord’s invisible attributes, eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen in that which He has created – so that rebellious mankind is without excuse when it rejects Him. But what we learn of God through creation has limits. The general power, nature, and glory of God are evident, but many details are missing. No one could ever discern a great number of truths about God by gazing at the stars or hiking through the rain forest or sailing the seas. We would never understand Christ, sin, salvation, the necessity of the cross, the resurrection and much more, for such things need specific revelation from our Creator. In verse seven of Psalm 19, David turns from general revelation, as found in observation of the universe around us, to specific revelation, the written Word of God. He speaks of the Law in particular as perfect, sure, right, pure, clean, true, desirable, sweet, and providing warning for those who disobey the commandments of God. They will be restored, made wise, rejoice, be enlightened, and rewarded (vv. 7-14). The Psalmist can’t seem to find enough wonderful things to say about God’s Word, but Psalm 19 pales in comparison to Psalm 119. One hundred and seventy three verses out of 176 speak of the grandeur and/or power of the written Word. Just a sampling sees why the Psalmist is so excited. It is by treasuring the Lord’s Word in one’s heart that we are kept from sin (v. 11). We can keep our way pure by living according to God’s Word (v. 9). Affliction comes from the hand of a faithful God and is good for us (vv. 67, 71, 75, 92). The Lord’s Word cannot be changed (v. 89), and much more.
The Old Testament is very clear about the role Scripture plays in enabling God’s people to change, grow, and live according to the Lord’s glory. But the New Testament is even clearer.
New Testament Teachings
The New Testament claims that the Scriptures contribute a number of spiritual benefits. For example:
Especially in light of reported claims of people coming to Christ through dreams, visions, and unusual experiences of all kinds, it is important to note Scripture’s role in our salvation. Romans 10:17 tells us that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” People simply cannot come to a saving knowledge of Christ without input from the Word of Christ. It is the Scripture that reveals the absolute holiness of God, that enables us to see our sinfulness and need for salvation, that describes and explains the Lord’s redemption plan through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and resurrection, which informs us that salvation cannot be obtained by our good works and that we receive the gift of eternal life through faith alone. There is no way that any of us could know the content of the gospel apart from the divine revelation found in the Bible. As Paul trains Timothy in his faith and ministries, he encourages the younger man to continue in the things that Paul had taught him (2 Tim 3:14). Of first importance is that from childhood Timothy has known the “sacred writings…able to give you wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (3:15). Paul’s concern was that Timothy not detach himself from the things Paul had taught him, including the part Scripture plays in salvation, and substitute some of the new theological trends beginning to manifest themselves in the early days of Christianity (2:14-26). Timothy must be totally convinced of the necessity of the sacred writings to bring people to Christ.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to the gospel message as the “word of the cross.” He warns that to “those who are perishing the cross is foolishness” but “to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1:18). This statement is immediately reinforced by quoting Isaiah 29:14 from the Old Testament (1:19). Similarly, Romans 1:16-17 speaks of the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Again Paul’s claims for the gospel is backed by Scripture, “as it is written, ‘but the righteous man shall live by faith’” (1:17b). The place of Scripture is pivotal in our salvation. It in fact reveals the power of God for salvation. Without Scripture we would neither know the work of the cross nor be able to apply it to our lives. No one is saved apart from the application of the gospel which is found only in the Bible.
Romans 12:2 has already been referenced, and is perhaps the key text explaining the role of Scripture in our sanctification, but it is certainly not alone. If transformation takes place through the renewing of our minds as Romans 12:2 claims, then renewing of our minds comes about through the knowledge of the Word as the Old Testament has already affirmed. But several New Testament passages echo this same thought. In Acts chapter twenty, we find Paul instructing the Ephesian elders concerning guarding and instructing the church in his absence: “Now I commend you to God and to the Word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (v. 32). If the saints are to be “built up” then the elders must be diligent to teach the Word of grace. It was through this means that the saints would grow.
Peter’s inspired writings are in agreement. In 1 Peter 2:2 he urges the believers to be “like newborn babies, long[ing] for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.” If the children of God are to grow up they must imitate babies who grow because they receive nourishment. Many Christians wonder why they have never grown much in their spiritual lives, but upon closer examination these believers often have fed very little on the Word. No one would be surprised to learn that an undernourished child does not grow and develop properly. The same principle applies spiritually. Growth is dependent upon wholesome intake of the Word of God.
In Peter’s second epistle he adds that Christ’s “divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” (1:3). The word “everything” leaves no room for competing input. If spiritual life and godliness is to be attained, the sole means is through the true knowledge of Christ, which can only be attained through the Scriptures. But what about those who elevate experience above God’s revelation, or others who view dreams and mystical encounters as being superior. Peter is ready for such claims. In the same chapter he recalls a real-life experience, as opposed to a mystical one, in which he and others witnessed the glory of the Lord at the Transfiguration (1:16-18). Still, Peter writes, there was something better than that – the Scriptures themselves (1:19-21). No prophet, he declares, made up his prophecy but rather was inspired by the Holy Spirit. In his understanding of Christ, Peter is saying, Scripture trumps even real experiences. Experiences are subjective and can be misunderstood or even altered in our minds over time. Memories are not static and are therefore unreliable. Not so the objective inspired Scriptures.
Hebrews 4:12 informs us that “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Scriptures reveal our hearts and thoughts which is necessary for dealing with sin and walking in the path of righteousness. This verse is the perfect follow-up to David’s prayer in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxious thoughts; and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” Wonderful prayer, but how was David expecting God to reveal these matters to him and in turn lead him in the right direction? Hebrews 4:12 answers these questions. The Lord exposes the heart and leads through His revealed Scriptures. James 1:21-25 warns however that the Word behaves as a mirror exposing our spiritual blemishes. When this happens we can either deal with what the Word reveals or we can walk away and ignore what we have seen. It is the “effective doer,” not the “forgetful hearer,” James says, who will be blessed in what he does (v. 25).
This brings us back to the important writings of Paul. We turn first to the book of Ephesians. In 4:11-16, Paul is outlining how the church of Christ functions. Gifted men have been given to the church (v. 11) for the task of equipping the saints to minister and building up the body of Christ (v. 12). Maturity is the goal (vv. 13-14), so that believers are able to speak the truth in love enabling fellow believers to “grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (v. 15). When this takes place the whole body functions as it was intended resulting in “growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (v. 16). What a beautiful picture all hinging on the gifted men of verse eleven fulfilling their God-ordained role of equipping the saints “for the work of service” (v. 12). The issue at hand is how are the gifted men to equip the saints? To help us get a handle on this, we need to understand what the word “equip” means. The word was used in New Testament times for resetting of broken bones and mending of ripped nets. What the doctor did for his patients with broken arms, and what the fisherman did with his broken nets, so the gifted men are to do for the saints. Broken bones and ripped nets need to be mended or else they will never serve their purposes as they were designed to do. The gifted men equip or mend broken and torn up lives. As people come to Christ, they come with lives wreaked by sin and in need of repair. The gifted men have been assigned the task of mending these lives. The next question is how do the gifted men mend (“equip”) these broken saints? There could be many guesses but guessing is unnecessary – Paul supplied the answer in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. In one of the greatest treatises on Scripture in the Word of God, Paul is explaining that the Bible, which is God-breathed, is profitable for four things: to teach us about God, ourselves and how we are to live; to reprove us, pointing out our sin; to correct us, showing us how to overcome sin; and to train us, so that we can walk in the path of righteousness. When all this takes place Paul assures us that “we will be adequate, equipped for every good work” (v. 17). Here we run into our word “equip” again. What is it that equips us for every good work? Paul is clear – it is the proper use of the Word of God. The gifted men mend broken lives and enable the body to function as designed by equipping the saints through the diligent teaching of the Word of God. It is no wonder that Paul immediately charges Timothy to preach the Word (2 Tim 4:5), for only through the proclamation of the Word will the children of God be equipped for every good work.
It should be recalled that Paul does not give these instructions to Timothy without a context. The whole epistle of 2 Timothy has been leading up to this. In 2 Timothy 2:2 Paul has commissioned Timothy to take the truths that Paul has given him (which Paul had received from Christ) and pass them on to faithful men who would do the same with other faithful men. But Timothy could not do this if he himself was not “diligent to present [him]self-approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2:15). If Timothy was to pass on to others the word of truth he had to study it in order to accurately proclaim it. Equipping saints is hard work and to do it well requires diligent study, so that the word of truth is handled accurately, or “cut straight” as a literal translation of this verse might read.
As we have seen, the use of the Scriptures as the means of spiritual transformation is not an incidental matter. Scripture proclaims itself to be at the very heart of any change and all growth in the life of the saint. Conformity to the image of Christ is not possible without the Holy Spirit applying the Word of God. But it is one thing to strongly believe in the power of the Word, it is another to accurately apply it to our lives. We need to turn next to application.
By way of application, I want to emphasize four things:
The importance of accurately handling the Word has already been mentioned (2 Tim 2:15) but we need to return to this briefly. There are many Christians who strongly proclaim their love for the Bible and yet seldom open it. Others may read a verse or two per day but do not meditate on what they read. And even those who dedicate themselves to a regiment of study may misinterpret, and thus misapply, what they read. When we are told to accurately handle, or cut straight, the Word of truth, this presupposes that such is possible. While some texts and themes are difficult to understand, and are subject to disagreement even among sound believers, the majority of Scripture is clear with even a small amount of study and effort. The real cause of most confusion and disagreement is not the plain teaching found in a passage but the hermeneutical approach being used. Hermeneutics is the science and art of interpretation. We use hermeneutics every time we read anything – from the newspapers to a novel to our tax forms. Most often we interpret what we read literally, or normally. When it comes to the Bible this is often called a historical-grammatical approach, simply meaning that we interpret the Bible according to the rules of grammar and in its historical context. As I have said, this is how we interpret virtually everything we read. But strangely when it comes to Scripture numerous other interpretative theories have been invented. Some of the more complicated ones include neo-orthodoxy and redemptive-spirit hermeneutics. But for the average student of Scripture it is the allegorical and devotional methods that cause most of the damage. These approaches seek hidden and secondary meaning behind the obvious. When applied to a biblical text, the intended meaning is brushed aside and replaced with an imaginative meaning which goes beyond the clear teaching of the passage. Through these methods Scripture can be twisted to mean anything the reader wants it to mean and in the process God’s communication to us is marred and mutilated. The world of Paul and Timothy was no stranger to allegoricalism, having become common prior to the church age. It is for this reason that Paul demands that Timothy work hard at accurately interpreting the Word. The lazy can and will pervert the teaching of God’s Word, the serious Christian must be careful not to do so. When we do not interpret Scripture in a normal fashion, as it was meant to be read, we will mute its marvelous message and be the poorer for it.
Growth in Discernment
The author of Hebrews, in chapter five, wants to explain to his readers how Jesus is now their high priest after the order of Melchizedek. Sadly, the author fears they will not understand this valuable teaching because they have become “dull of hearing” (v. 11), and this because they have not matured in their understanding of spiritual things and now are in need of being taught again the “elementary principles of the oracles of God” (vv. 12-13). He reminded his readers that solid spiritual food is only for the mature (v. 14a). And how does one gain such maturity? By training their senses to discern good and evil (v. 14b). We find here no sympathy for baby Christians who have been saved for many years but have not grown in their understanding of the deeper things of God. Rather because they have stayed stagnant in their spiritual development they are missing out on valuable understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Paul admonishes the Colossians to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within” them (Col 3:16). To richly dwell means to be at home within them. As Christians the Colossians were indwelt by Christ through the agency of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19), but here Paul desires that Christ’s very words find a home in their hearts. Home is where we feel comfortable and accepted. Christ’s word should receive that same kind of reception with us. When it does, we will find ourselves teaching with wisdom, exhorting one another, experiencing thankfulness and living out our lives in the name of the Lord (3:16b-17).
Exhorting and Refuting in Sound Doctrine
When the Word of Christ is richly dwelling in us it should be natural that we want to share God’s truth with others. As Paul lays out requirements for elders in his letter to Titus, he first details personal, godly qualities and then turns to one related to the Word. An elder is to hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” [sound doctrine] (Titus 1:9). Elders must hold fast, clinging to the Word of God. They must have a tenacious desire to not be moved from its truth. But more than that, they must know the Word well enough that they can exhort or encourage others in the faith, in the sound doctrine or teaching of the Word. And even further, when necessary they will be able to show the error of those who teach false doctrine. This assumes that an elder has carefully studied Scripture and theology to the point that he can take both positive and negative stands for truth as he leads and protects the local church.
Similarly Paul calls for Timothy to retain and guard the sound words of Scripture (2 Tim 1:13-14). Timothy was not to seek new revelation nor adopt the philosophies, imaginations and speculations of those around him. He was to “retain [maintain, cling to] the standard of sound words which you have heard from me [Paul].” As the inspired writer of Scripture and apostle of Christ, Paul had been given the “sound words” of the faith. He handed these down to many others including Timothy. Timothy was to retain and guard these sound words as well as “entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). The servants of Christ are not to be creative in what they teach. They are to take the sound word first given to the human authors of Scripture by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16), and hand them down to faithful believers who will do likewise.
This important treasure of sound words will surely be subject to attack by demonic forces and evil men. So Timothy is to also “guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you” (2 Tim 1:14). Jude appeals to his readers to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed… ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (vv. 3-4). If “the faith,” which is synonymous with the doctrines of the faith, is so precious and valuable and such a treasure, it is only natural that those who love it will fight for it.
The result of a biblically informed use of Scripture is spiritual growth. Second Peter 1:3-8 states:
Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust. Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness and in your brotherly kindness, love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they render you neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
No wonder John wrote, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
As we consider the means by which spiritual change, growth and development takes place we find that the Scriptures constantly point the believer to the very inspired words it contains. We need not look to extra-biblical sources such as those found in the Spiritual Formation Movement, among others. Growth in godliness comes primarily through the power of the Holy Spirit who enables believers to understand and apply the Word of God to our lives.