This is the sixth of eight Sunday School lessons that I taught from mid-October through mid-December. It was an in-depth study of a critical topic that many Christians do not understand.
Let me begin with a series of quotes from a book we have referred to a few times in this series.
In that moment when you received Christ as Savior, not only were you justified and delivered from God’s wrath, but God made a very special change inside of you – he changed your attitude about him. Before that, with your back toward God, you were “alienated and hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21). But now, realizing that the offense of your sin has been removed by the blood of Christ, you turn around. What do you see? You see the compassionate face of a loving God with open arms reaching out toward you. What do you do? You run into those open arms. You are no longer hostile! You have been reconciled to God. . . .This would seem to take care of everything – justified and reconciled. But it doesn’t. It is to that second change inside of us we now turn. It involves a biblical truth that is so marvelous we might easily hesitate to believe it. (Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, David Needham; Multnomah Publishers, 1999; page 61.)
Contrary to much popular teaching, becoming a Christian is more than having something taken away (sins forgiven), or having something added to you (a new nature plus the assistance of the Holy Spirit); it is becoming someone you had never been before. It is justification + reconciliation and regeneration. The new identity is not on a flesh level, but on the deepest level of one’s inmost self. This miracle is more than a judicial or positional act of God. It is an act so actual that it is right to say a Christian’s essential nature is righteous rather than sinful. In a sense, one could say that justification is salvation as viewed from above, where God sits as a righteous judge issuing his judicial declaration. Reconciliation touches both “above” and “down here” as it affirms that since the wrath of God has been satisfied through Jesus’ blood, we who were once enemies are now friends. We have responded to God’s love by loving him and all that he is. Regeneration is salvation viewed from below, where we experience God’s internal miracle of being alive with the life of Jesus by the Spirit. These together not only remove us from God’s wrath, but qualify us to fit – to actually fit! – in his righteous kingdom through the possession of Jesus’ risen, eternal life in a restored relationship. (Needham, pages 71-72.)
What does this all mean? It means that by the new birth, you and I are now participants in the ultimate new age of God’s eternal purposes. We are living within the fulfillment of the prophets’ aching dreams and God’s promised miracle. We are now, actually, the internally transformed citizens in God’s kingdom of righteousness – where Jesus reigns, within the kingdom of our hearts. (Needham, page 77.)
So, what has Needham reminded us? He wants us to understand that God did not merely change His mind about us when we became Christians. There is more to salvation than God seeing us as justified, redeemed, and forgiven. He has done a miracle inside us as well. Needham stated, “The new identity is not on a flesh level, but on the deepest level of one’s inmost self.” God did things to each of us internally that we could not have done by ourselves. He radically changed our basic orientation from day one. This transformation continues to develop and mature us into Christlikeness over the course of our whole life. This is what we will discuss in today’s lesson.
1) Read John 3:1-8. How much of the things of God can a person experience prior to regeneration?
(Teacher notes: I am sure that most Christians are familiar with this passage. Here is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, where Jesus tells him “You must be born again” (John 3:3). Jesus is not primarily giving Nicodemus (and anyone else who reads it) a command to be born again or “born from above”. To the contrary, I believe that Jesus is stating a fact. No one can even begin to see clearly enough to make a decision to come to Jesus unless something supernatural happens to them first. Because of our understanding of the sinful nature of man (AKA the doctrine of original sin), we know that we must be given new spiritual eyes to see Him and new ears to hear Him. Jesus often said, “Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9). A couple of verses later, we see that Jesus did not mean every person who physically had ears on their heads. He was addressing those who by His grace, were allowed to hear God’s voice. Jesus clarified, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (Matt. 13:11). Jesus explained to His disciples, “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Matt. 13:16). This corresponds to what we discussed last week in John 10, verses 3-4 and 27, about Jesus’ sheep hearing his voice. So, back to what Jesus said in John 3:3: we must be born again. There must be a place and time where our new life in Christ starts. Yes, coming to faith is a process, similar to the 9-month development in the womb. Nevertheless, there is a birthday, which includes the exact time that we took our first breath, which is put on the birth certificate when you and I came out into this world. From that point forward, life will never be the same. It is the same way for each one of us when we become a Christian. Jesus re-emphasized in John 3:5 and 7 that we cannot enter the Kingdom of God on our own; there must be a second birth caused by the Spirit of God.)
2) Read 2 Cor. 5:17. What does it mean to be “in Christ”?
(Teacher notes: We discussed this idea of Christians being a new creation in my last lesson from weeks 4 and 5. Paul’s point is simple. Those who are identified with Jesus Christ by faith have been and are being transformed into His likeness. The doctrinal term that theologians use is “sanctification”. This internal transformation is portrayed as a radical and irreversible change in one’s nature. Paul uses this term “in Christ” quite often in the book of Romans. (See Rom. 6:11, 23, 8:1, and 12:5.) Paul says that we are baptized “into Christ” in Rom. 6:3. Baptism is a very personal and public declaration of our faith in and submission to Jesus. It is an outward symbol of an inward reality. We are identifying ourselves with Jesus’ death and resurrection; dying to self and being raised to new life in Him. When we become unified with Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells us. (See Rom. 8:9-11.) He is the source of this one-time and ongoing transformation.)
(Teacher notes: Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in response to a problem in the local church in Galatia. [Note: I am glad Paul did not write to the church in Dalmatia, as we might have an epistle to the Dalmatians. It probably would have had 101 verses. Sorry. I couldn’t resist.] But seriously, there was a problem with legalism. Christians came to Jesus by grace through faith, but then were being taught by some false teachers that they also needed to keep the Jewish laws. This unnecessary burden was in clear contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ, so Paul had to set them straight. His point at the end of this epistle in 6:15 is that what really mattered was the inward transformation that came from the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5:16-18), not any outward mutilation of the flesh according to the OT Law. This change of heart was a direct fulfillment of OT prophecy concerning the New Covenant, which we had discussed before.)
4) Read Titus 3:3-8. Note the contrast of lifestyles before and after conversion. What happened?
(Teacher notes: One of Paul’s main purposes in writing this epistle is to teach that genuine faith in Christ results in a changed life. He reminds his readers what they were like before Christ in v. 3. Paul contrasts this with a “but” in v. 4. Because of God’s kindness and covenant love expressed through Jesus Christ, God saved us. Our salvation was not dependent on our good or righteous works, but rather, by His mercy (v. 5). As a result of us being cleansed and receiving a “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”, we are called to respond appropriately by devoting ourselves “to doing what is good” (v. 8). Again, this supernatural rebirth at the moment of salvation led to a radical transformation that is without a doubt an irreversible event.)
5) Read James 1:18. Who did the choosing? Who did the giving? What was the purpose?
(Teacher notes: To echo Jesus and Paul, James also mentions the new birth that all Christians experience. I like James’ emphasis on the fact that God chose to give us this new birth in Christ, which we discussed earlier. God not only chose us, but He gave this to us through the word of truth, the gospel, which is the message of good news found in Jesus alone. His purpose in doing so was that we would be the first fruits, like His first-born Son, the best of all that He created.)
(Teacher notes: I like this section, because it ties in so well with what we have read earlier. Peter specifically mentions that the new birth we were given was because of God’s mercy, which Paul also did in Titus 3:5. He goes on to mention a couple of other things that we have not yet seen. This new birth gives us a “living hope” which is based on Jesus’ resurrection. Peter adds to this hope an inheritance that is ours; one that is eternal in nature. More importantly, it is one that “can never perish, spoil, or fade – kept in heaven for you”. If that wasn’t enough to convince us that our eternal destiny in Christ is secure, Peter continues. He states that we, through our genuine faith in Christ, “are shielded by God’s power” until Jesus returns. The point of mentioning this passage in our discussion of our internal transformation, is to show that the new birth changes not only our present but our future. Since we did absolutely nothing to earn this inheritance (it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ), we can do nothing to lose it. The changes in our status before God and the changes to our very orientation are permanent. God chose us so that we could believe in His Son, be forgiven, be internally transformed by His Holy Spirit, reflect His nature in our attitudes and behavior, and then spend eternity with Him. That is who we are in Christ, and where we are going. Knowing these truths should set us free!)
What difference does knowing all this make in your day-to-day experience (i.e., walk) with God? When you first became a Christian, what did you see as evidence of your spiritual transformation? What have you seen that has been transforming since that moment?
Is there some other area of your lifestyle that still needs to be transformed into Christlikeness?
Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.