Does the Gospel change our lives?

This is the basic question to which Joe Dongell is trying to answer in a pair of lectures posted at Ben Witherington’s blog.

Too often the Christian message is presented along the lines that if we believe and/or do the right things now, everything will turn out all right for us after we die, but that we should not expect anything to happen to us before that. We should of course attempt to stop sinning and do good Christian things like going to church. But the only changes in our lives will be what we bring about ourselves; God does nothing for us, at least nothing which we can perceive, until the day of our death.

Dongell argues for a very different version of the Christian gospel, in which believers can expect God to act in their lives to make a real change in them. Dongell is approaching this from the Methodist Holiness tradition. The charismatic movement offers a slightly different take on this, in which it is the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit which transform the life of the believer, but essentially they are saying the same thing – although Dongell is right to warn against the unbalanced charismatic extreme that “demonstrations of power and miracles constitute the highest form of spirituality”. From a rather different and more theological direction, the New Perspective on Paul makes a similar point in arguing that for the apostle “justification” meant not just legal acquittal but also a change in behaviour.

Sadly there is also a strong and resurgent “Reformed” party among evangelicals which seems to delight in rejecting all of these ideas, focusing instead on the Christian duty of sanctification by works, that is by studying the literary works of great Christian scholars of past centuries. For many in this party (although probably not for Reformed charismatics like Adrian Warnock) it seems that God cannot be expected to do anything visible for believers before their dying days.

Contrast that with the biblical picture of how a believer can be transformed given in Dongell’s second lecture:

a real breakthrough at the core of our being: a reversal of polarities such that the inward-pointing vectors are, by God’s transforming work, turned outward so that we can in fact give ourselves freely in loving others, and loving God with our whole hearts.

Surely the people who don’t expect God to transform their lives now are missing out on a huge part of biblical Christianity.

Dongell ends with three suggestions of how this transformation can take place:

Wait expectantly within the Means of Grace

Embrace Suffering and Service

Ask the Father for a Full Assurance of His Love for you

While the first two are certainly important, I suspect that for many people the third is the key. These people have never realised deep down that God truly loves them. They might believe that God has grudgingly agreed to let them into heaven if they suffer enough now in this life. But they don’t believe that God wants the best for them now. As Dongell puts it (his emphasis):

Here’s the issue in a nutshell: we cannot release ourselves from the heavy responsibility of self-defense until we catch a full vision of the God who actually loves us all the way, and who is for us all the way. And who is good, all the way to the bottom. We can “surrender” all we want, but I suspect that it is psychologically and spiritually impossible to surrender fully to someone we are afraid of.

0 thoughts on “Does the Gospel change our lives?

  1. good post. it is true a lot of people don’t seem to understand that they have to work at their walk with God after they get saved & they sort of just get stuck in a rut after a few months.

    >the third is the key to a changed life. once one understands & believes that, they are never the same.

  2. Thank you, Mary. But I’m not sure that “work at their walk with God” is quite the right way of putting it. I know that Philippians 2:12b could be understood in that way, but see also the next verse which shows how God is at work in us. Yes, we should aim to do good works, but this can be achieved not by our striving but only by allowing God to transform us.

  3. I do believe that God has changed my life and I do believe that God is at work in everything and in everyone. Nonetheless, I also have some sympathy with what Mary said.

    It’s a bit of a delicate balance, really. A balance between expecting God to do things instantly, magically and without effort on the one hand and, on the other hand, ‘trying very hard’ and feeling that one is a ‘failure’ before God.

    I had the priviledge of speaking to a retired Methodist minister recently; not wildly well known, but a published theologian. He said that, in his experience, it was the people with a practiced prayer life who faced the end of their life with hope and who ‘had a relationship with God’. Otherwise, he believed, elderly people are at risk of losing their faith.

    I like the idea of ‘practicing’ one’s prayer life. I think it’s more like exercise than it is like writing poetry. I think it’s important to pray even when one not is sure why one is praying, who one is praying to or what good it will do.

    I’ve had a few ‘instantenous’ changes by God but most of the changing he’s done in me seems to be through my prayer-life.

  4. 🙂 Okay, phrase it that way. It sounds better in type. yes, God works in us, and we reach out to Him. both actions seem to be happening in a growing Christian.

  5. Pam and Mary, thanks for that. Yes, certainly we need to work at our prayer life. I just wanted to avoid the idea of sanctification by works, the principle which Paul condemned in Galatians 3:3,5.

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