The Great Change
"If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new!" 2 Corinthians 5:17
Some of our older readers may recall a book which made quite a stir in the religious world, especially the Arminian sections of it, some forty years ago. It was entitled, "Twice-born Men," and was written in a somewhat racy and sensational style by a well-known journalist, Edward Harold Begbie (1871-1929). It purported to describe some startling "conversions" of notorious profligates and criminals under the evangelistic efforts of the Salvation Army and City Missions. Whether or not the reader is acquainted with that particular book, he has probably read similar accounts of reformations of character. He may, as this writer, have personally heard the "testimonies" of some unusual cases. We recall listening unto one in New York City some time ago: A man past middle age who had "spent twenty Christmas days in prison," who had been delivered from a life of crime, attributing his deliverance to the amazing grace of God and the efficacy of the redeeming blood of Christ, and who—to use one of his Scriptural quotations—had been given "beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness" (Isaiah 61:3).
Many, if not all, of those reformed characters testify that so thorough was the work of grace wrought in them that their old habits and inclinations had been completely taken away, that they no longer had the slightest desire to return to their former ways, that all longing for the things which once enthralled them was gone; declaring that God had made them new creatures in Christ, that old things were passed away, and all things had become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Personally, we do not deem ourselves competent to pass an opinion on such cases. Certainly, we would not dare assign any limit to the wonder-working power of God; nevertheless, we should need to be in close contact with such people for some considerable time and closely observe their daily walk—in order to be assured that their goodness was something less evanescent than "a morning cloud, and as the early dew," which quickly vanishes (Hosea 6:4).
On the one hand, we should keep in mind the miraculous transformation wrought in the fierce persecutor of Tarsus; and on the other, we would not forget Matthew 12:43-45.
But this we may safely affirm, that such cases as those alluded unto above, are not general or even common, and certainly must not be set up as the standard by which we should ascertain the genuineness of conversion—be it our own or another's. Though it is blessedly true that in His saving operations, God communicates subduing and restraining grace to the soul—to some a greater measure, to others a lesser—yet it is equally true that He does not remove the old nature at regeneration or eradicate "the flesh." Only One has ever trodden this earth who could truthfully aver "the prince of this world [Satan] is coming, and has no power over Me" (John 14:30). There was nothing combustible in Jesus—which Satan's fiery darts could ignite.
But the godliest saint who has ever lived had reason to join with the apostle in sorrowfully confessing: "When I would do good, evil is present with me" (Romans 7:21). It is indeed the Christian's duty and privilege to keep himself from all outward sins: "Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16); yet as the very next verse tells us, the flesh is there, operative, and opposing the spirit.
But we will go further. When such people as those referred to above, appropriate 2 Corinthians 5:17 to describe their "experience," no matter how well suited its language may seem to their case, they are making an unwarrantable and misleading use of that verse; and the consequence has been that many of God's dear children were brought into sad bondage. Countless thousands have been led to believe that if they truly received Christ as their personal Lord and Savior—such a radical change would be wrought in them; that henceforth, they would be immune from evil thoughts, foul imaginations, wicked desires, and worldly lusts.
But after they did receive Christ as their Lord and Savior, it was not long before they discovered that things inside them were very different from what they expected—that old inclinations were still present, that internal corruptions now harassed them, and in some instances, more fiercely than ever before. Because of the painful consciousness of "the plague of his own heart" (1Ki 8:38), many a one has drawn the conclusion that he was never soundly converted, that he was mistaken in believing he had been born of God, and great is their distress.
Now one very important and necessary part of the work to which God has called His servants, is "take up the stumbling block out of the way of my people" (Isaiah 57:14 and compare Isaiah 62:10); and if he would faithfully attend unto this part of his duty—then he must make it crystal clear to his hearers—believers and unbelievers—that God has nowhere promised to eradicate indwelling sin from the one who truly believes the Gospel. He does save the penitent and believing sinner from the love, the guilt, the penalty, and the reigning power of sin; but He does not in this earthly life, deliver him from the presence of sin. The miracle of God's saving grace does indeed effect a real, a radical, and a lasting change in all who are the subjects of it—some being more conscious of the same and giving clearer evidence of it, and some (who previously led a moral, and perhaps a religious, life) less so; but in no single instance does He remove from the being of that person "the flesh" or evil principle, which he brought with him when he entered this world. That which was born of the flesh is still flesh—though that which was born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6).
Not that the minister of the Gospel must swing to the opposite extreme and teach, or even convey the impression, that the Christian can expect nothing better than a life of defeat while he is left in this scene; that his foes—both internal and external—are far too mighty for him to successfully cope with. God does not leave His dear child to cope with those foes in his own power—but strengthens him with might by His Spirit in the inner man. Yet he is required to be constantly on his guard, lest he grieve the Spirit and give occasion for Him to suspend His operations.
God tells the saint, "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Corinthians 12:9)—but that grace must be sought (Hebrews 4:16) and used (Luke 8:18); and if it is sought humbly and used aright—then "he gives more grace" (James 4:6), so that he is enabled to fight the good fight of faith. Satan is indeed mighty—but there is one yet mightier: "Greater is he who is in you, than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4); and therefore is the Christian called upon to "be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might" (Ephesians 6:10); and though while severed from Christ, he can produce no fruit (John 15:5)—yet strengthened by Christ, he "can do all things" (Philippians 4:13). Christians are "overcomers" (1 John 2:13, 5:4; Revelation 2:7).
Thus we see once more that there is a balance to be preserved: Avoiding at the one extreme the error of sinless perfectionism, and at the other, that of spiritual defeatism. Truth is to be presented in its Scriptural proportions, and not dwelt unduly on either its gloomy or its bright side.
When one is regenerated, he is effectually called "out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9); yet if an unconverted soul reading those words forms the idea that should God quicken him—that all ignorance and error will be immediately dispelled from his soul, he draws an unwarrantable conclusion and will soon discover his mistake!
The Lord Jesus promises to give rest unto the heavily-laden soul who comes to Him—but He does not thereby signify that such an one will henceforth enjoy perfect serenity of heart and mind. He saves His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)—yet not in such a way that they will have no occasion to ask for the daily forgiveness of their transgressions (Luke 11:4). It is not that His salvation is an imperfect one—but that it is not completely experienced or entered into in this life—as such passages as Romans 13:11, 1 Peter 1:5 show. The "best wine" is reserved into the last. Glorification is yet future. "We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is!" 1 John 3:2