Meditation on Grace and Transformation
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.
This is one of the clearest descriptions of the effects of the work of Christ and our inclusion in them through faith. We all confess that indeed salvation is by grace (the unprovoked loving action of God) and we enter in through faith (a living confidence in that action), but often there seems to be a disconnect between our response and what is often presented as our obligation in light of His work. When one reads Paul's thought on salvation in its entirety as I have presented it above, we see Paul makes no distinction between God's work and the "good things" that we are to walk in. Paul's point is clear, the whole thing from start to finish is of God, and the believer is thus robbed of any boasting. We are His masterpiece, any good is the direct result of being made new in Christ and is simply the manifestation of that good which God had originally intended for us from eternity past.
I meditate often on the relationship between behavior and the finished work. I find most people's theology on this matter is internally inconsistent and even outright contradictory. Yet here we see exactly how that relationship works. Paul seeks to change our perspective and attempts to assist us in understanding this issue from heaven's perspective. It is simply all of God. Now I want to add some nuances here. Paul is not saying God has taken possession of our human vessel and operates us like some machine. Paul is not removing the emphasis on our freedom of will. Paul is not excluding our participation by any means.
So what is he saying? Paul is saying that any and all boasting on our part is removed because the gift is from Him, the renewal of our inner constitution was wrought by Him, and the good things we are now liberated to do are in alignment with what God had originally intended for man to conform to. Thus salvation and its effects are ultimately completely of God.
Now what does this have to do with transformation? Well I have seen people try to argue that in Christ we sin, but we just sin less. Or they say things like real Christians wouldn't do X Y Z. I think these perspectives are misguided, dangerous, and simply aren't true. In fact if you were to take a quick inner survey of your thoughts, actions, and attitudes on any given day you would find indeed sin still lurks about quite boldly within your members. What Paul is saying here is that God has saved you (delivered you from any threat of judgement), He has made you new (Through union He has reordered your inner world and as a result your desires and wants have effectively changed), and in light of these realities you are now free to walk in the good things that He ordained from the beginning. The good things refer to our restored capacity to live in accordance with His nature, which is the ultimate standard for all good. Paul is saying we have been given the gift of justification, we have been rewired and restored, and now we are able to walk out a life that desires to pursue that which is good.
Remember our volitional experience has not been changed, nor has our desire for sin, rather we have a new set of "want to's" that have been added and are in conflict with the remnant of our fallen cognitive framework. Thus we still have choices to make. We must choose to submit ourselves to Him as instruments of righteousness. Now if one believes that ideally they can achieve a state of choosing in alignment with the good at all times, that person is simply setting themselves up for quite a fall. We all make poor choices, every one of us, and while we should make every effort to pursue the good, we should also recognize the necessity of the gift of justification. God saved us, justified us, and we will never come under judgement. This was necessary because God knew we were going to make some mistakes and errors. Therefore, we must always remember God saved us, He did it, out of love, and our failure to comply consistently with the good no longer affects our position as forgiven, innocent, children.
Often transformation is articulated in this idealistic way in which people are made to think that a) God intends you to live a perfectly moral life and b) that this perfect moral life is attainable. This is not at all what the Bible teaches. First of all if that was God's intention then maybe He shouldn't have died in our place, absolving us from all guilt. Cleary perfection in deed is not requisite. Further God would have to muffle, dull, or remove our capacity to choose in order for this idealistic perspective to be a reality. The truth is a Christian who has experienced transformation is not a sinless saint, they are a walking bag of paradoxes and contradiction. They love God and desire to do His will, yet they seem to trip and stumble often, falling in and out of various sins from day to day and even moment to moment. Indeed freedom from certain besetting behaviors are realized from time to time, only to be replaced by fresh insight into other areas that remain firmly fixed in the mire.
It is this idealistic sham that has placed an un-liftable burden upon the backs of well meaning Christians. Christian transformation in Christian thought is primarily focused on the inner constitution of the believer, manifesting to varying degrees, and in inconsistent frequency through the moment by moment choices of the reformed and renewed child of God. Being transformed implies a reordering of our inner world that is demonstrated in the choices we make. As a child of God you already manifest this reordering or reconstitution of your inner world, even though you still at times manifest the remnant of your prior condition.
I will close with this final comment. The gift of salvation and righteousness gives us the freedom to relax and be okay with not always being perfect. The reordering of our inner being gives us the freedom to pursue the good. Transformation is the freedom to pursue the good, in spite of occasional contrary choices, knowing that through Christ perfection and righteousness are gifts, and not goals to be attained.