Even after a couple of decades in the limelight, this topic remains relevant and controversial. Just yesterday I was sitting with a friend at a restaurant talking about everything from our families to the Atlanta Falcons. (Perhaps it was the Falcons that made me think about transformation.) When I mentioned how we change in the context of spiritual growth, my friend surprised me by stating flatly, “I don’t think that it [transformation] is possible.”
Now this was not an unplugged friend. He is well trained as a counseling psychologist and a practical theologian. He has pastored several churches, taught in a conservative seminary, and is a gifted teacher in the area of psychotherapy. So I asked him to repeat what he had said.
“I don’t think it is possible for people to transform, to actually become like Jesus. Sorry, but I don’t.”
As my friend offered evidence for his point, I began to examine my own life. The lyrics to a song from the early days of Christian rock became the background music as he spoke: “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” After his evidence, my personal examination, and the melody stopped, my left brain began to recount statistics. These statistics detail how Christians and non-Christians look so much alike in categories like divorce rates, domestic violence, charitable contributions, and pornography downloads.
It hit me that this friend and Dallas Willard may be singing a similar song (with slightly different endings). While Dallas strongly believes that real change does happen, they both have been struck by the fact that non-transformation is the elephant in the sanctuary.
I got back to the office to begin working on this article. But I delayed the process by opening my desk drawer to find change to feed a vending machine.
While excavating through piles of old letters, office supplies, and other people’s business cards, I unearthed a small metal tin of mints. On the lid was a painting of three angels and the words “Atone-mints: For Each of Your Sins.” I popped the lid; there were just two left. I remembered buying the canister of candy a few years ago—sadly, I didn’t recall that until after popping them in my mouth.
I guess at some point I must have thought having a container of “Atone-mints” would be pretty funny. But in the context of the conversation with my friend and a review of the embarrassing scarcity of evidence of Christlikeness in my own life, the humor was escaping me.
What if part of the problem with experiencing authentic transformation among modern Christians is the tendency to reduce the real meaning and process of atonement to an absurdity? Instead of accepting the process of dying daily to any will but the will of God, we may often substitute the one-time profession of a sugar-coated “magic phrase” that equals transformation; as a result, we may then become more prone to argue about the “how” and “who” of salvation instead of stepping away from our self-sufficiency and into a transforming friendship with the members of the Trinity.
I believe that transformation is possible. However, I also think it has become commonplace to live as if what Jesus meant to be Christianity 101—learning to live our lives with supernatural abilities—has become Christianity 401, a curriculum most reserve now for the saints.
Am I being too hard on myself and others? Probably: that is a persistent character flaw I have. But before dismissing the challenge too quickly, ask yourself how many people you know who have actually become so much like Jesus that their friends and neighbors are constantly asking, “What happened to you?” I know two, and neither is me. One I’ll keep a secret. The other agreed to do an interview for this issue of Conversations—Dallas Willard. In that interview, he critiques the various theories of atonement, tells us how he believes transformation is possible, and discusses some of the practical ways he attempts to live each day “with God.”
Keep reading. In this issue you’ll also discover how a C. S. Lewis scholar and Orthodox Christian, Chris Jensen, believes that the truest approaches to Christianity—and the ones offering the greatest hope for real change—should, like soup, be both “thick” (placing emphasis on mystery, matter, and ritual) and “clear” (emphasizing theology, philosophy, and ethics).
When we examine the church, you will read about one person’s yearning for the church to be a community that both displays and enhances transformation (Steve Doughty’s article, exclusive extra content that can be found online on our website, along with additional material from this issue), what one church is doing to be intentional about fostering Christlikeness (Dave Johnson), and how spiritual retreats can be more effectively structured to promote real change (Cam Yates).
Both Keith Meyer and Larry Crabb contribute articles that focus on the Bible and transformation. While Keith describes ways of “getting his Bible back” by viewing it through a different lens, Larry recovers Scripture from the dust of familiarity to its rightful place as “66 Love Letters” from God. In his article, “Remember Your Baptism: Living Out the Christian Rite of Transformation,” David deSilva suggests that we can experience our baptism again, intentionally, on a daily basis. Then Jan Johnson walks us through what 12-Step approaches have to say about transformation (and why transformation really happens there), and Jeannette Bakke interviews Arthur Paul Boers to discuss how he has used walking and pilgrimage as an exercise in transformation.
Keep turning the pages, and you’ll encounter David Kinnaman, one of the authors of unChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity… and Why It Matters. From his interview, you’ll get a better idea of how the lack of transformation causes a younger generation to view Christians. Then, Jeremy Langford discusses how, paradoxically, spiritual transformation is about remembering and staying grounded rather than racing off to be someone else. Finally, you will read features by our wonderful writers Michael Glerup, who always opens our conversation to include voices from the Early Church, and Kim Engelmann, who turns each issue into a small group resource with her skillful summaries and questions (the latter can be found online).