I am using a human analogy because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you offered the parts of yourselves as slaves to moral impurity, and to greater and greater lawlessness, so now offer them as slaves to righteousness, which results in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free from allegiance to righteousness. So what fruit was produced then from the things you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. But now, since you have been liberated from sin and have become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification — and the end is eternal life! For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The wonderful fact is, that not only are we forgiven for our sins, but we are also freed from the power of our sins. Though our nature was corrupted as it lived “according to the course of this world” (Eph 2:1-3), it can also be transformed as we walk according to the Spirit of God. Before we were “conformed” from without, now we can be “transformed” from within (Rom 12:1-2). This transformation is not merely outside like those that followed the law of Moses, for Jesus told us that Christian righteousness must “exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees” who followed the letter of the law, but didn’t “walk according to the Spirit” (Matt. 5:20, Rom. 8:3-4, 2 Cor. 3:6-9). We don’t merely clean the outside of the cup, like the Pharisees, but we are cleansed from within by the Spirit of God. When God comes to live in us, He begins the process of reforming and restoring our nature as He intended it to be in the beginning. As we submit to this process, he begins to transform not only our actions, but He begins writing the “righteous requirements of the law” on “our hearts” (Rom 8:4, Rom 2:15). He works in us to “will and to work for His good pleasure“ (Phil 2:13). After forgiving us through the sacrifice of Christ, He begins to conform us to the image of Christ.
After learning that our very nature is being transformed from within with ever increasing glory, many make the mistake of thinking that this change is automatic. Often people hear that God is “working in them to will and act according to His pleasure” (Phil 2:13), and forget that we are called to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). God is always at work “conforming us to the image of Christ” (Rom 8:29), but we must “become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching which we were committed” (Rom 6:17). Whereas before we “presented our bodies as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness”; now we must “present our bodies as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Rom 6:19).
Jesus said that we would “know the truth, and the truth would set us free” (John 8:32). But He didn’t mean that the truth will automatically change our hearts and set us free. Instead he meant that the truth would set us free if we submit and “abide in His word” (John 8:31). Only through letting Jesus’ word abide in us through obeying His commandments can we abide in Him; and it is only through abiding in Him that we can hope to bear the fruit of holiness in our lives (John 15:4,7,10).
The process of transformation is a work of God’s grace through the power of His Spirit. But it is equally a work or our faith (James 2:26). Through faith we must receive the grace of God. God’s grace was worked out on the Cross, and by receiving that unmerited favor thorough faith we are made acceptable to God. But God’s grace is not only unmerited favor, it is also empowerment.
In 2 Peter 1:3-4 we are told that God has given us “all things that pertain to life and godliness” so that we can “become partakers of the divine nature having escaped the corruption that is in the world through evil desires”. Receiving the grace of God by faith is not a one-time thing, but a continual process. We are to receive his favor given to us on the Cross, and His power given to us in the Holy Spirit. We are not called to merely meet Jesus, but we are called to abide in Him (John 15:4).
“We share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm until the end” (Heb. 3:14). That is, we partake of the salvation from the penalty of sin, and the power of sin, if we “continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the Gospel” (Col 1:23). To work out our salvation we must receive the grace of God, which consists of favor and power, through a living and enduring faith. God’s grace saves us from the penalty and power of sin, but it is through our faith that we receive this salvation (Eph. 2:8-10, 2 Pet 1:3-11).
Simply put, God’s Spirit works the character of Christ into us, as we obey the Spirit. “Those who are led by the Spirit are sons of God” (Rom 8:14). This verse is not talking about being led to prophesy as in 1 Cor. 12:1-11. Instead Romans 8:12-13 makes it clear that this is speaking about walking according to the will of the Spirit and putting to death sinful desires. God is at work on us, but we must surrender to the molding work of the Spirit through a living and obedient faith. Without God working in us, we cannot be changed; but neither can we be changed without our willing and active submission to the work of the Spirit.
When learning of the work of the Spirit in our transformation, we can make the mistake of believing that we have no part to play in walking out our reformation. But there is another error that is equally dangerous; we can believe that once we have been transformed, we can never go back to corruption. 1 Corinthians 10:12 warns, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” Believing that man has no role in walking out his salvation can lead to complacency; but so can believing that once some degree of transformation has taken place within our character, we can never again be corrupted or conformed to the course of this world.
Paul warns us in Philippians 3:16 to “hold true to what we have already attained.” He made it clear in the preceding verses that he understood he wouldn’t reach absolute perfection until the resurrection of his body at the return of Jesus. And his exhortation to “hold true to what we have already obtained” makes it clear that he knew, that if we don’t “press on toward the goal”, we could return to the corruption we once walked in.
We are told that we are being “transformed from one degree of glory to another” by God’s Spirit, in this present age. But this transformation will not be complete, or permanent, until the return of Jesus Christ. (Col 3:1-4, 1 John 3:1-2, 1 Cor 15:51-55, Rom 8:18-25). Until that day any degree of reformation worked into our nature by the Spirit of God will be dependent on us abiding in Jesus Christ. If we fellowship with Christ through trusting and obeying Him, we will bear much fruit, but if we turn from a faith that submits to Him, we will no longer have the power of transformation within us. We will be like the branch detached from the vine, who bears no fruit.
In the above section we learned that “Every branch of Christ’s that does not bear fruit God takes away” (John 15:2), that is, we learn that a man has the duty to work out what God works in. In this section we want to make clear that “as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can we, unless you abide in Christ” (John 15:4). We must not get over confident by the progress we see in the transformation of our character, lest we forget that it is the power of the True Vine, Jesus Christ, which is performing and maintaining, our reformation. Apart from Christ we can do nothing (John 15:5), and apart from Him we will return to where we started.
In Indonesia we cannot drink the tap water, instead every home has a water dispenser. After buying a 5 gallon bottle of water you place it on the dispenser. Then you put the glass up to the nozzle, then out comes the water. Most of these dispensers come with a water heater. Throughout the day the water that comes out of the blue nozzle will be room temperature; but the water from the red tap will be hot.
Now imagine the hot water in the heated side of the dispenser thinking that he is much warmer than that lukewarm water next to him. In one sense, the hot water would be right, its temperature is warmer than the water in the unheated part of the dispenser. But it would be important for the warm water to understand that it is not hot, in and of itself. It will only remains warm as long as the heater remains warm. The water does not have an independent heating source, no, it is dependent on the heat of the heater. So, though the water on the red side is hot, if you remove the water from the heater and set it on in a glass on the table, it will gradually return to room temperature. If the water is not heated from within by the heating coil, it will be cooled from without by the air in the room.
This is a picture of our transformation up until the coming of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of our bodies. At present we are that warm water. Our character is different than the character of those that live in the world. Our nature is growing in holiness. Our desires are being reformed and conformed to the desires of our God. But the changes that have taken place so far inside of us, are dependent on the Holy Spirit. If we stop following the Spirit, any change that we have experienced in our inner man, will be reversed. If we become conceited and think “that we stand, we will fall.” If we don’t abide in Christ, any degree of transformation we have obtained, will be lost.
The changes worked in us by God’s Spirit are not permanent until the Second Coming of Christ. If the water heater is not allowed to influence the water from within, the water will be influenced from without by the air in the room. And we, if we are not transformed from within by submitting to the Spirit of the Lord, we will be conformed from without by the world.
Limited, Yet Real, Transformation
We have noted above that the transformation of our nature will not be complete until the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of our bodies that will take place at that time. At that time “we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-55). “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). For now we are in process, “beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18). And that process will not come to a conclusion until that Day, “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
As we walk with Christ we will experience a change in the things we desire. Before we knew Christ we were following fleshly desires that led to more sinful desires. But as we walk with Christ our hearts are changed. The desires of our flesh are reigned in under the desires of the Holy Spirit. Our earthly nature which was once a wild and rebellious jungle, is pruned and brought under control.
Sexual desires that had been perverted become less unruly, the love for power gets replaced with a zeal for humility and the lusty pursuit for wealth gets tempered though contentment and a hunger for righteousness. This is not to say that lust, pride or greed never raise their ugly head from within us; it is just that the Holy Spirit helps us to do, what Cain could not do when he was commanded to rule over the sin that desired to destroy him (Gen 4:7). And the temptations from within are made more manageable in ever increasing measure. As we present our bodies to righteousness, it leads to sanctification (Rom 6:16-19).
Until the Return of Christ, we will not be without temptation. But as the law of Christ is written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit, walking in righteousness does become easier. There are always new areas of our nature to conquer; we can never get to a point where we can say, “We have arrived.” But there is a real, though limited, change that takes place deep within us as we submit to the leading of God’s Holy Spirit.
But our hope is that one day our limited change, will become complete. We are waiting for the day when not only Satan and all his worldly lies will be cast into the lake of fire, but even our own natures will be perfectly “conformed to the image of God’s Son” (Rom 8:29).