Conversatio Divina

Transformed into His Likeness

David C. Cooper

How Scripture Helps

Transforming Theology: Forming the Soul

“A man is what he thinks about all day long.”

—Emerson

“Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

—Romans 12:2, NIV All Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

I believe that the Christian life is best summed up in these three words: truth, transformation, and transcendence.

First, we accept the truth, Jesus Christ, which sets us free from the law of sin and death. “You will know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Then, the process of living in this truth—living in Christ—brings about the process of transformation, which in turn enables us to transcend life’s challenges, adversities, and temptations and live on a higher plane—a place of loving relationship to God, others, and the self.

In this article I want to share how Scripture plays a vital role in my personal life. I find that the Holy Spirit uses the Scripture as the primary means to convict, conform, and change me as God works in me “to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians. 2:13).

01.  Getting to Know the Truth

The Bible is alive! This is its amazing quality. Paul used the word inspiration to describe this transcendent quality of Scripture. Inspired means “God-breathed.” The Bible is always in the present tense: it’s not simply “God spoke,” but “God is speaking” through its sacred pages.

Just as God breathed into Adam and he became a living being, when I read Scripture, God breathes into my heart and mind, and I, too, become more fully alive. When I sit alone and read the Bible—I mean, when I can clear my mind of all the duties, assignments, and pressures facing me as a man and as a minister—I experience personal revival to an extent that is rarely equaled, even in corporate worship (and I’m a Pentecostal pastor!). Corporate worship is vital because Christianity is fundamentally community, but my time alone with Scripture is supremely life-giving.

When I talk to God and read his Word, I discover what Adam knew when he walked with God in the cool of the day. The word cool in Hebrew is ruach, meaning spirit, wind, life, and—get this—breath! Adam walked with God in unbroken spiritual communion, the same way God desires to walk with me.

The word cool in this context, I believe, is referring not to the weather but to the depth of lifegiving relationship between the Creator and the created. The Bible is the source that keeps my thinking about God clear and accurate; spending time in Scripture is what keeps my ministry simple and focused. In spending time in God’s Word, I am comforted and restored, even as I battle my deepest fears, and I am brought back to God when I fail. In Scripture, I am given the powerful awareness that I am not alone in the world. Often, as I read the Bible, I walk with God in the cool of the day.

02.  Seeking Transformation

Transformation happens in the mind through its renewal. We are to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). The battle of life is a battle waged in the mind. The word Paul uses for renewal is anakainosis (Greek), derived from kainos, meaning that which is new in character and nature, as opposed to being new in time (neos, Greek).

When a person is in Christ, he or she is kainos, new in nature and character. The believer lives by a new mind, a new attitude, and a new worldview. “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Only when Christ is central in our thoughts can we truly offer ourselves to God as “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing” (Romans 12:1). As Christians, we can “set [our] minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2). Scripture is vital for such renewal.

Paul uses be transformed, which is metamorphoo in Greek and means to be changed into another form. The only other uses of the word in the New Testament are in Matthew 17:2 in describing the transfiguration of Christ and 2 Corinthians 3:18, where Paul describes the transformation of believers into the image of Christ in all his moral and spiritual excellences.

The word morphoo is also helpful to the understanding of transformation. It refers to inner change that is lasting and permanent, involving the essence of something. Spiritual maturity is the ongoing change of the person’s true personality into Christ’s own image.

Let me give a personal example of how Scripture has helped me to learn more about living in Christ, becoming a new creation. When I first became a minister, I had a real problem with being critical and judgmental of certain styles of ministry I saw taking place in the Christian community—and to be honest, it’s a battle that I occasionally still fight. I had to learn how to disagree and express my view while being understanding of how people arrived at their theological views and giving them the benefit of the doubt, how to call issues into question without judging character or intent, and how to offer a constructive critique with being critical of my brothers and sisters in Christ. But this did not happen overnight, and it did not happen without the aid of Scripture.

One day as I read the Bible, the word gentleness leaped off the page to me. I knew I was falling short in the gentleness category. I felt convicted by the word and convinced that this was the quality I needed to balance my life. So I set out to do an extensive word study of gentleness. I worked on it for days, journaling my discovering in a personal notebook. For the next few years, I often read that entry, filling my mind with everything I could about the gentleness of God. As I experienced the gentleness of God through Scripture on an emotional level, I began to be gentler toward others. The study of Scripture was having a tenderizing effect on my heart.

Here are a few things I discovered: God’s “anger lasts only a moment” (Psalm 30:5) while “his love endures forever” (Psalm 100:5); “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13); God has compassion on his children because “he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14). The goodness and gentleness of God caused me to long to be more understanding of others, the way God is of me, to err on the side of being too merciful, and never to be guilty of being judgmental. I began to consider that all of us are simply dust, and how much can you expect from dust?

Needless to say, I had my mind renewed about being kind, compassionate, and gentle. That was the day I stopped being a crusader for any cause except the pure, simple, and powerful good news of Jesus.

I have learned that transformation is not something I can do on my own, regardless of how hard I try. I am not advocating passive discipleship. Far from it! Faith without works is useless (see James 2:17). But my effort is only response, a submission to the work of the Spirit. My effort is never earning, and my confidence is not in myself but in the one powerful promise of God to me: “He who began a good work in [me] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). I stake my entire Christian pilgrimage on this one promise of God. This promise has transformed me from being enslaved to fear and perfectionism, to resting in the sovereignty of God over my life and his grace at work in my life to finish the good work he started in me when I received his Son as my Savior.

I have discovered that transformation can lead to transcendence. As we grow in Christlikeness, which means to think the thoughts of Christ, to feel with the compassion of Christ, to pray with the simplicity of Christ, to treat others with the love of Christ, to view ourselves with the humility of Christ, to yield to God’s will with the submission of Christ, and to forgive others with the mercy of Christ, we are able to transcend the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.

Through our walking with Christ, it becomes possible to transcend religious institutionalism, denominational pride, and ecclesiastical systems, just as Jesus transcended the same in his day, so that we can simply follow him and find a point of unity with every other Christian. We can transcend both prosperity and adversity, living with a deep sense of contentment regardless of our circumstances. We can transcend fear, worry, and anxiety, knowing that our lives are in his hands and we trust him to do all things well. We can transcend rejection, ridicule, and injustice by loving even our enemies, blessing those who curse us, and praying for those who mistreat us, for we are all like those of whom Jesus said, “They do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). We can transcend pettiness and neurotic obsession about things that don’t really matter in the light of eternity because we live with an eternal perspective. We can rise above the pain and agony of grief because we know that heaven is our home and there is more to life than what we can touch, see, and feel. This is what I mean by transcendence—not some slick, high-sounding word that has nothing to do with real life, but the God-given power to live on a higher plane with “inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8).

03.  Scripture and Transcendence

Today we tend to think of worship, at least in evangelical settings, in terms of music and the arts. We speak of “praise and worship” as the first part of our liturgy in corporate worship. But worship is far more than singing and musical performance. Truly to worship is to transcend.

Reading Scripture is worship. Worship fundamentally means “to bow down.” Yes, the first move of transcendence is downward. The first appearance of the word worship is found in Genesis 22:5 when Abraham told the servants to wait while he took his son Isaac up Mount Moriah: “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham called his action of offering his son to God in obedience to the divine will, worship. Scripture is the revealed will of God for humanity. When we read God’s laws, principles, commandments, and promises in faith and submission, we worship!

Worship leads to transformation, which in turn leads to transcendence of the carnal and the worldly. Paul connects spiritual worship with transformation. Before he tells us to not be conformed to the world and to be transformed by the renewing of the mind, he says, “This is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1). What is our worship? Namely, to resist conformity to the world’s attitudes, values, beliefs, philosophies of life, and lifestyles and to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by internalizing truth provided in the sacred pages of Scripture. You see, we become what we worship—that is, what we think about.

If we worship money, we become materialists.
If we worship pleasure, we become hedonists.
If we worship power, we control and manipulate others for our own ends.
If we worship fame, we become gods in our own eyes.
If we worship our abilities, we become humanists.
If we worship intellect, we become atheists.
If we worship the self, we become narcissists.

When we worship God in spirit and in truth, as Jesus said we should, we are transformed into God’s likeness so that others see Christ in us, the hope of glory!

About what should we change our minds so that we transcend the world? First, we need to change our minds about sin—the possibility of managing our lives apart from dependence on God. When we entertain false notions about God, we reflect those distortions in the way we live. Repentance itself is simply a change of mind that results in a change of behavior. Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:5). We perish in many ways when we cling to unbiblical beliefs. This is the danger of moral relativism: we reshape God in our own image and convince ourselves in turn that he overlooks or, even worse, condones our sin. Doug Marlette poignantly describes such a condition in his parody of “Amazing Grace”:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
that saved a stunted self-concept like me.
I once was stressed out, but now am empowered,
I was visually challenged, but now I see.

We need to change our minds about success. The world defines success largely in terms of fame, fortune, power, and pleasure. We need to transcend this notion by the mind of Christ, which defines success as doing the will of God. This was Jesus’ sole purpose, and it must be ours. “‘My food,’ said Jesus, ‘is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work’” (John 4:34). “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). Jesus finished his life and ministry successfully because he could honestly pray, “Father . . . I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:1, 4). Because they get caught up in a shallow definition of success and fail to make an eternal contribution with their lives, very few people can honestly say that. As Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

As World War II was drawing to a close, C.S. Lewis, lecturing a group of students at Oxford University, paused and asked the class, “How can you go to college and study literature when London is under siege?”

He then answered his own question: “We’re always under siege. The real question, then, is will you spend your life dealing with the immediate or the eternal?” Or, in the words of Paul, will you spend your life being conformed or transformed? Will you and I get stuck in a rut of mediocrity, shallow spirituality, and materialism, or rise above this present age to live in the presence of God? Why be earthbound when you can soar on eagles’ wings?

I had a transforming experience about three years ago that made transcendent living a more vibrant reality for me. I went into the hospital for an endoscopy to clear a blockage in my esophagus. The procedure was outpatient, and I should have been in and out of the hospital in 3 hours. The procedure went awry; my esophagus was punctured. Emergency surgery was performed, and I woke up the next day in a hospital bed with a number of tubes invading my body. I was in the hospital for nearly a week, with a month of recovery time ahead.

It turned out to be one of the most spiritually enriching times of my life. Prior to surgery, I was wound tight as a drum, pastoring a nine-thousand-member church and leading a nearly thirty million dollar building project. I didn’t realize how stressed out I had become until I was flat on my back. I learned how to rest physically and spiritually. That the church did just fine without me was a relief and a revelation: I wasn’t nearly as indispensable as I had thought. While at home, I rediscovered an early love in my life—music.

As a teenager, I had become a fairly good guitar player and enjoyed writing and performing original music with my best friend. My friend, Doyle Dykes, one of the greatest guitarists of our time, used to reprove me for what he called “burying my talent.” In fact, he and the pastoral staff bought me for my fortieth birthday a Taylor acoustic guitar that had been out of the case only a few times until I had surgery. I had buried my musical gift for over twenty years. But while home, I started playing and writing. I wrote songs of worship, ballads, songs for my children, a love song for my wife, and a song for a children’s choir. Since my surgery, I have had three worship songs published from Nashville and have cowritten two others.

I have a band, and we perform on occasion our original music. One of the great joys of my life is to become lost in the music we play—transcending life as I normally live it. But what has all this to do with transformation? Well, I have discovered a world within a world in music. Writing and playing music is something I can get lost in, the same way I do when I get caught up in experiencing God in Scripture. Transformation that leads to transcendence is a cool thing! And whether I am searching for buried treasure in God’s written word or enjoying a talent that had been long buried within me, I find closeness to God in both. I find a transcendent experience of his community in both and a greater sense of connection to all that is peaceful, sacred, and beautiful.

Footnotes

DAVID C. COOPER, DMin, is senior pastor at Mount Paran Church of God, Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Cooper is the author of eight books, including For Better, Not Worse: Transforming Your Marriage from a Contract to a Covenant, Written on Our Hearts: Rediscovering the Ten Commandments, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, and Repurposing Your Life (Pathway Press). His inspirational teaching is featured on the daily radio program Discover Life in the metro Atlanta area and throughout north Georgia. You may contact Dr. Cooper by writing to: