Become: Transformation (2.1) - Joining God in His Work

Next Step Discipleship, pp. 91–98

by David Daniels on

Books 14 min read
Romans 12:2 Philippians 2:12–12

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind...
Romans 12:2

I recently crossed the mid-century mark of 50 years old. Looking back over my life, I can’t remember a time when I “got older” or “grew up.” What I mean is that I can recall being 10 years old and playing cops and robbers with my best friend in Georgia. I can also remember my family moving to Texas when I was 11 years old. I remember the experience of sitting in my first seminary class at age 25 and receiving my diploma almost three years later when I was 27. But, I have no recollection of the transition from 10 to 11 or the time between 25 and 27. I was becoming mature but didn’t realize it.

We could say I have grown incidentally over the last 50 years. I haven’t been entirely conscious of my progress. I didn’t try to get taller, for example, nor did I realize it was happening at a particular time. But, looking back, I can see the progress.

In the last chapter, we looked at the common experience of incidental life transformation that many Christians enjoy. But, God’s goal for us is not to simply look back and notice our growth, but to actively participate in it. We must be intentional to walk further along the spiritual pathway to maturity.

Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). A “disciple” is a learner, a pupil or an apprentice. It’s someone who “comes after” a master. No one accidently or expectantly becomes a disciple of Jesus any more than someone accidently becomes a farmer or a doctor or a police officer. We consciously choose to follow Jesus which means a daily and deliberate decision to “deny ourselves” and “take up our cross” and “follow Him.” This is what Paul emphasizes to the Philippian Christians. The Apostle had visited the church on his second missionary journey.

While he was there, he preached the Gospel, baptized new converts, trained leaders and established a church. Paul stayed a while and guided the young believers in their newfound faith and instructed them in what to believe and how to live. Eventually, however, Paul moved on to new missionary frontiers and left the church to take responsibility for its own maturity.

This reminds me of my own spiritual journey while in college. Having trusted in Jesus a month before my high school graduation, I entered college as a newborn Christian. Quickly I discovered friends, campus clubs, a church and Bible studies that helped me grow exponentially during the next four years. I joined a group of 20 other college men and we established a new Christian fraternity based on brotherhood and unity. The field of my heart was fertile, and multiple layers of worship, prayer groups, theological conversations, conferences, mission trips and leadership opportunities established a solid foundation for the rest of my life.

Then I graduated.

I stayed in the city where I attended college, but many of my friends moved away. I was no longer in our great fraternity. My day was no longer saturated with spiritual conversations. I worked five days a week and had bills to pay. It was a whole new world where I was going to have to take personal responsibility for my spiritual growth. During this time, I memorized 1 Peter 3:15,Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” This simple verse reminded me that I needed to live my hope and defend my hope, but before either could happen, I had to own my hope. It had to become the hope I have, not the hope of my parents, my church, my friends or the clubs I enjoyed. In short, I had to take ownership of my faith.

So, as Paul left the Philippians, they faced an opportunity. Like babies who must eventually leave their mother’s breast and begin eating for themselves, it was time for them to no longer live off the faith of Paul, but to own their faith. With this, Paul wrote,

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

This verse highlights three important principles to remember regarding intentional life transformation in the Christian.

1 – We Work Out Our Salvation. We Don’t Work for It.

This is one of many examples where word meanings matter when reading the Bible. Two countries work for a treaty and then, after the treaty has been signed, they work out their individual responsibilities. Similarly, a couple works for (or toward) their marriage and then they spend the rest of their lives working out how to live with and love
one another day by day.

This verse in no way suggests that a person may gain salvation by works. Clearly, the Bible dismisses any human effort in regard to our favor with God. Paul writes, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). In 2 Timothy 1:9, Paul likewise writes that God “saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.” Salvation is never by human work.

But, once saved, Christians do “work out” the particulars of life with God. The phrase “work out” means “to produce.” A nonbiblical first century writer used this Greek word in regard to digging for silver. With this in mind, Paul is urging Christians to “mine their salvation.” Search for all the treasure to be gained in your life with Jesus.

2 – Our Working Out Begins With God Working In Us.

Paul commands us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” and then adds “for it is God who works in you….” We work because God works first. In the last chapter, we discussed the Holy Spirit as the producer of life change. Having believed, the Holy Spirit lives in the Christian and desires to sanctify the Christian through and through. Looking toward the New Covenant, the Lord promised His people,

For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)

When God gives people a new heart of flesh, He also gives them His Spirit who compels us to follow God’s commands. The result is that no one can take credit for their own spiritual maturity. Every step of growth is because God is at work in the believer and therefore deserves the glory for what He is doing.

3 – Life Change Requires Our Response and Responsibility.

This gets to the command in this passage. In Paul’s absence, Christians needed to take personal responsibility for their spiritual progress. The question is not whether God will do His part, helping Christians understand truth, showing them the path of righteousness, giving them the power to do what God requires, making them sensitive to sin in their lives, leading them to repentance, and enabling them to glorify God in all they do (1 Corinthians 10:31). The question is whether each Christian will take personal responsibility to join God in His work.

During seminary, I took a pastoral counseling course to learn how to help people find freedom from their problems. While the course explored the deeper dimensions of psychology and human behavior, our professor offered a very simple tool for determining whether a person could be helped through counseling. He suggested three questions:

  1. Do you know what the problem is?
  2. Do you wish to change?
  3. Are you willing to do whatever is necessary to change?

These are three very telling questions. No doubt, people face problems every day in which they don’t understand what the real problem is (Question #1). I once counseled a man who was overcome with loneliness but didn’t realize that he interacted with people in a way that was awkward and made them feel uncomfortable. Another person wanted help with outbursts of anger, but didn’t understand that the root was an unhealthy need to be in control. Most people are glad to learn what their “problem” is.

The first question addresses information. But the second question deals with aspiration: What do you want? Some people know what they need to do, but don’t really want to do it. Not long ago, I asked a man who struggled with alcohol if he understood that his drinking was damaging his relationships, his job security and his health. He did. But when asked if he wished to change, he much preferred his drinking. Some Christians still prefer their sin habits instead of a life of holiness. And, they will never be free from sin until their desire is changed.

Question #3 is most important. Having learned of their problems and wishing to change, people must be willing to take part in their own progress. While sanctification is the work of God’s Spirit, it requires human response and responsibility. In 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul states “[B]y the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” God’s grace, freely given to Paul, was “not without effect.” That is, God’s grace was “at work” helping Paul to work harder.

There are more than a few verses in the Bible that highlight the responsibility of Christians to cooperate in their intentional transformation:

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12:2)

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind
me. (1 Corinthians 13:11)

So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:16)

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. (Colossians 1:10-13)

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Colossians 2:6-8)

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8)

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3)

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16)

[M]ake every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love… be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. (2 Peter 1:5-7)

Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

Every command is a challenge. God’s people cannot simply expect themselves to be changed because they attend church. God’s goal has never been for us to become converts, but disciples—apprentices of Jesus who pursue growth in our life with Him.

To read the next section of this chapter, see: Become: Transformation (2.2) - What Must Change.

About the Author

Dr. David Daniels (D. Min. Dallas Theological Seminary, M. Div. Denver Seminary) is Lead Pastor of Central Bible Church and author of Next Step Church, Next Step Discipleship, Next Step JournalWonder, and An Unexpected King.