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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #22: How does God go about changing us?

He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. -John 7:38-39

I cannot begin to tell you how much this has changed my outlook as a follower of Jesus. My puny understanding of this gift of the Spirit led to years of shame and guilt even as I took on the role of a pastor. I grew up during the time when the church either only spoke about the Spirit as the third member of the Trinity or was ‘swinging from the chandeliers’ over the baptism of the Spirit. I am sure there were those who taught a more transformational gospel, but I wasn’t aware of it during my formative years.

But Jesus wasn’t confused about the Spirit. In this passage he is speaking of a transformed life—“From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.”—as a result of the presence of the Spirit who would show up after Jesus was glorified by his death and resurrection. The result of the work of the Spirit in us is neither winning a trivia quiz about the person of God, nor Christian gatherings turned into wild parties. His presence in us is about joy, about life, about transforming us so that our very being will conform to Jesus.

Those who followed Jesus understood that this gift was at the heart of the new covenant Jesus initiated. They were empowered by him. They were sealed by him. More importantly, their feeble attempts to be good for God were transformed by his presence in their lives. Paul and Peter both spoke about the sanctifying work (being freed from the power of sin) of the Spirit (2 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 Peter 1:2). “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” is how Paul expresses what the Spirit does in us.

Think of the implications this has for the new covenant. It may surprise you, but God made covenant with us knowing full well that we lacked the ability to keep up our end of it. I know that may seem an absurd statement, but it goes right to the heart of the relationship between the transformational gospel and the new covenant. I often sense that we never entirely grasp that God was well aware of our total incapability to be righteous after He made covenant with us.

So we are toast, right? I know a number of believers who hold to some version of “At some point we are going to mess up one too many times and we are going to be shown the door by a holy God.” But that is exactly why the Spirit was promised, and then given.

All the heavy lifting of transformation is provided by the Father through the Spirit and necessarily so. He is the only one who can really be trusted to carry this out because even the best of the best (think of Peter, Paul or any of the rest of the apostles) showed their human capacity for falling short of the glory of God. The hope of the new covenant is not that God Himself would make sure a few of us would stagger into eternity after years of failure to measure up. Instead, we get the Holy Spirit and thereby get to live free and whole lives. What a covenant!

I am now on a journey of fully embracing the good news of the kingdom. On a personal level, this understanding has changed my marriage, my parenting and my relationship with the Father. And why I want others to know this gospel. I invite you to join me.

Steve Smith