By Ted Hopkins
In my last post, I ended by saying faithfulness to Jesus leads us to faithful change, despite our deep and abiding reluctance to do so. In that vein, let me offer a bold thesis: the Christian life is one of continual change. Following Jesus, by definition, means change.
I can almost hear the naysayers: “At the heart of Christianity is a God who doesn’t change (Mal. 3:6) and a faith in God that is steadfast and immovable (1 Cor. 15:58). If Jesus is the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Heb. 13:8), and our faith is rooted in him, without wavering, how can you say that the Christian life is one of continual change?”
To be clear, our friendly naysayers are right, both about our God and about the faith that grasps God’s promises. The Word of the Lord remains forever (Is. 40:8, Mt. 24:35), and saving faith hears and believes that steadfast promise and so receives exactly what the promise says (Rom. 10:10, 17): forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation as Jesus abides in his people by faith, and we abide in him.
While the Christian life is marked by firm faith in a permanent promise, following Jesus is at the same time also marked by continual battle against the sinful flesh, by discipline and self-restraint, by pilgrimage, imitation, and adventure.
The author of Hebrews describes a life of faith as a kind of race, and calls us to run that race with perseverance, throwing off the sin that entangles (Heb. 12:1). In 1 Corinthians, Paul uses similar imagery to call God’s people to run with purpose and follow God’s will and direction, rather than the ways of the world. Paul even compares the life of the Christian to a boxing match in order to emphasize the need for discipline in our lives as we train our bodies to be ready for the fight (1 Cor. 9:24-27). In Romans, Paul describes a war going on inside of him, between what he wants to do and what he keeps on doing, a war between the sinful flesh and the Spirit of God where you and I are the battleground (Rom. 7:13-24).
What are these images and examples illustrating except incessant change, hearing the Word and turning to God in faith to do the Father’s will rather than the will of sin that entangles our steps and deforms our desires? The Christian life is neither pure journey nor pure destination; it is more like a relationship with another person, growing, deepening, abiding, but never remaining the same.
At least, this is how I have experienced my relationship with my wife. Perhaps those who got married in their thirties have had to experience less change, but Beth and I were married at twenty-two. Frankly, we didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into! At that time in my life I still played a lot of videogames, and hadn’t even held a full-time job yet—and wouldn’t for two more years (if I’m being generous to myself).
Beth had never shared a room with someone else, let alone a boy. When we were only twenty-two, how could I imagine the person she would eventually become? How could she know the theology nerd into which I would grow? My point is that my wife and I have changed immensely over time, and our relationship has changed along with us.
I am simply not the same man I was fifteen years ago, nor she the same woman. Our relationship has changed. But we are still married; that hasn’t changed. In fact, the truth of promises we made to each other are even more apparent now than they were back then. Our commitment to one another—to put one another first, to listen to each other, to communicate our affection, to spend time together—these things are stable foundations around which our relationship has grown.
In other words, our promise of commitment to each other has provided a permanent platform around which we have changed. Although we often fall short in our relationship, we have pledged to not stop being loyal to each other, working on building a life together, and putting each other first.
These “givens” provide stability in our marriage relationship; but they also require change. To live in these promises means for me to reevaluate my relationship with my wife regularly in order to be a good, faithful husband.
This stability that requires change also applies to our lives of faith. We have an unchanging Lord who is our stable foundation, whose promises are permanent, whose forgiveness is forever, and whose love is lasting; that’s a given. But these promises are not ones we just receive and leave: they are promises into which we live and around which we orient our entire selves. We must change if we are to look continually to Jesus and live in his Word.
After all, the race of life is not a smooth track. We experience not only speed bumps, but steep cliffs; not just streams, but deep ravines. We face deserts—the wildernesses where God seems absent—and stormy seas—where death and the devil seem more powerful than anything else.
When the terrain gets tough, we need to change, to hear Christ’s Word in our current context as forgiving our sins and comforting our afflictions, to know our present neighbors as fellow bearers of God’s image, and to reevaluate how we are following Jesus according to God’s Word. The unchanging, permanent promise does not prevent change. Rather, God’s unchanging, permanent promise enables us to change, as we daily grasp anew God’s Word, and as the Spirit works in us to conform us (shape, form, mold, and change us) to the image of Jesus.
In church, we usually use the word “repentance” to refer to this kind of change. Repentance means that we turn our eyes to Jesus when we are so prone to look elsewhere—especially inward at ourselves. Repentance means turning to the Word to do what God says when we have been listening to what our ears want to hear. Repentance means trusting in the promises of forgiveness that the loving Father offers for Jesus’ sake when we have loved other things first.
And in every walk of life—from childhood to gray hair—in every relationship, and daily, we are called to repent, turn and return to Jesus, remembering his grace and mercy in every trouble, keeping our sinfulness in check in every temptation, and following him to serve every neighbor that comes into our sphere. Hence, Luther wrote, the Lord Jesus willed “the whole life of believers to be one of repentance.” In other words, the whole life of believers (those who trust God’s unswerving promises) is one of change.
Such a life that orients itself to Jesus constantly, that looks to his word, to his story, and to his commands, is not a static memorial set in stone, but a beautiful and interactive adventure. This adventure is listening, looking, and living, all oriented to Jesus Christ. Such an adventure requires change, but faithful change that stays rooted in Jesus.