“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
WHAT DOES IT TAKE FOR OUR CHARACTER TO BE CHANGED AT ITS DEEPEST LEVEL? Christianity has always held that radical change in human character is possible, but Christians themselves have not always kept their thinking clear about what is involved in this change. Certainly there must be a decision to cease from sin and to start doing God’s will. Reverent obedience to God’s requirements is by no means optional (1 John 1:6). But if real change is to take place, our compliance with God’s law must be enlivened and empowered by our gratitude for His grace.
In the New Testament, the Pharisees are a case study in what can happen when we try to conform to the precepts of God’s law without any devotion to God Himself or any honest appreciation of our need for His grace. The Pharisees emphasized obedience with a zeal that was legendary (Philippians 3:5,6), and yet Jesus said to His followers, “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). What does this mean? If it merely means that we must be more careful or exert more effort than the Pharisees, then we have little hope, for they worked at commandment-keeping about as hard as anyone can. Instead, we must take a different approach to righteousness. Our efforts must be of a different kind (Romans 10:3; Philippians 3:8,9).
Beyond conformity, deep inner change requires an actual reliance upon God Himself. If all we do is conform to biblical precepts, that does not by itself guarantee that we’ll experience the richness and power of a transformed heart. In fact, if we don’t throw ourselves into an honest love affair with the God of real grace, our obedience will feed our pride and actually worsen the condition of our heart. The truth is, we can’t be more than imperfect instruments of God’s glory right now. The change we need is one more radical than we can undergo just yet, and we must be willing to wait for our perfection in Christ. In the meantime, being a “new creation” in Christ requires that we accept, however painfully to our pride, what grace really means.
“Grace is a certain beginning of glory in us” (Thomas Aquinas).