God’s Writing 6: Transformation
The gospel has sometimes been truncated in an unhelpful way. It is sometimes told as if it ends with the forgiveness of our sins, the cancelling of our debts, and declaration of our acceptance by God. All of this is true, but it isn’t everything! It leaves the impression that we are saved and ready for Heaven so we might as well just sit back and wait for the next bus. It rightly emphasises that we were in the wrong, in debt to God, and that this dishonourable past is now blotted out, but it fails to describe the riches that are credited to us on account of Jesus. The gospel is not only about forgiveness – it is also about transformation. So far in this series we have seen God writing in creation, in providence, in revelation, in judgement and in forgiveness, but we need to see that God writes in transformation.
In the first post of this series I discussed the conscience and the moral standard that is written on our hearts. This same language of law written on hearts is found elsewhere in the Bible, but in a different sense. As I explained in Part 1, the conscience is an imprecise tool – it cannot guide us perfectly to God’s will. It can be blunted and ignored and we find it much easier to recognise wrong done to us than the wrong we do to others. Another way of describing what has happened to us that we were created originally to reflect God’s image, to express His likeness (as Genesis 1 says), but that we have now fallen because of sin. We still have dignity as image-bearers (Genesis 5 and 9 both re-emphasise this fact as the basis for the special sanctity of human life), but we no longer come close to God’s likeness. The Old Covenant given through Moses had great ability to show where we fall short of God’s standard – it was excellent at exposing sin – but it lacked the power to truly transform us into people who are able and willing to do what is right. The tablets of stone were an external standard, guiding and judging us. Romans 7 describes in powerful language the struggles that Paul, a faithful Jew, had with trying to keep the Law. He kept finding himself powerless to do what he knew he should do. He was a wretched man!
As the southern Kingdom of Judah was being taken into Exile, God was speaking through the prophet Jeremiah. He gave the people God’s command not to resist the exile, but to seek the prosperity of the cities they would be taken to and to have confidence in God’s good future for them (Jeremiah 29). God also gave him an insight into what would come after the people had returned from exile. In Jeremiah 31 we read a prophecy of a New Covenant that would be unlike the Old Covenant. The same words are quoted in Hebrews 8, which makes it crystal clear that Jesus is the initiator of the New Covenant, just as He himself said when He ate with His disciples shortly before His death, calling the cup of the Last Supper the New Covenant in His blood (Luke 22:20). How is this New Covenant different from the Old? The book of Hebrews explains that the great difference is that Jesus, who is the sacrifice and High Priest of the New Covenant, is superior than the sacrifices and priesthood of the Old because His death was one sacrifice for sins forever and He lives to intercede forever for His people. The supremacy of Jesus as the giver and keeper of the Covenant explains why it works in a way that is not only for a time (the Old was beneficial in leading to Jesus) but forever (the New will remain the basis of God’s relationship with us eternally).
When we consider the terms of the New Covenant we discover there are three promises within it:
God will know all of His people and they will no longer need to be taught to know Him. The priesthood, which had interceded between Israel and God, is replaced with the priesthood of all believers.
Sins will not be remembered any more. Rather than perpetual sacrifices for sins, there is a once for all forgiveness.
God’s Law will be written on our hearts and minds.
It is this third promise that especially interests us within this series. Here is God actively writing His standard into our being. It is an image of transformation – the renewal of minds (see also Romans 12:1-2). What is not explicit in Hebrews 8 or Jeremiah 31 is how God will accomplish this, but Paul gives us an insight in 2 Corinthians 3:1-6. He writes that (verse 3):
“you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.”
The echo of Jeremiah 31 is clear, as is the contrast with the writing of God on tablets of stone. No longer will God’s standard be external – it will now be internalised. The Spirit will indwell God’s people and will transform their hearts so that they become people who are able to do God’s will. Paul describes this way of the Spirit in several places. In Romans 8 he contrasts it with his wretched struggle to overcome sin before his conversion (Romans 7). In Galatians 5 he explains how the Spirit is at war with the desires of our sinful nature, but how He produces fruit in the lives of those who follow His leading which is in line with God’s standard in the Law.
The Spirit was present, of course, in the Old Testament, but there He anointed specific individuals for special acts of service, generally as kings, prophets or priests. This anointing was not permanent. In the New Testament, however, the Spirit is given to all of God’s people and He makes His home in our lives – it is a permanent indwelling. The baptism of the Spirit, which makes this possible, could only be carried out by Jesus (as John the Baptist said He would) and only after His death and resurrection (another Counsellor like Him would come, as He taught in John 14:155ff.). The Church was baptised in the Spirit in Acts 2, fulfilling the vision that God had given to Joel and other Old Testament prophets of a great outpouring of the Spirit. Only those who have been cleansed through the death of Christ can be indwelt by the Spirit He promised. In this sense the New Covenant is vastly superior to the Old. As we worship Jesus, the Spirit continues His work of changing us into the likeness of Jesus. Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
The Christian life is impossible without the Spirit. Every Christian is indwelt by Him, but we need to yield more to Him, following His leading, keeping in step with Him. As we do so, we rejoice that real change is possible. We are not yet what we should be, but we are not what we used to be. Lord, continue Your work in us!