Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change
Three excerpts at a time from the new book by Brian G. Hedges


Have you ever been in a situation where you know your destination but can’t find your way? It happens to me with almost predictable regularity. In fact, I’ve been lost in nearly every big city I’ve ever visited. Just ask my wife. In these moments of dislocation and disorientation, we need two things for our journey to be a success: a map and someone to show us where we are in relation to our final destination. When you come right down to it, then, I suppose we usually need a third thing as well. Especially men. When our journey has been reduced to an ineffective mix of hunches and guesswork, we need to admit that we’re lost and need help!  

Following Jesus is also a journey, and one with a clear, inspiring destination. According to Scripture, we are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29). To be holy. Most Christians realize this and desire it. But we often feel disoriented in the midst of our journey. Though we know where we should be going, it can seem like we’ve lost our way.

A primary reason for this disorientation is simply that becoming more like Jesus—a process theologians often call “sanctification”—takes a lifetime, and life gets complicated. As the years unfold it can become unclear how sanctification really works, and how it fits with other elements of Christian life and thought. For anyone who takes faith seriously, honest, important questions will eventually arise.

·       How do my current struggles with sin affect my standing with God?
·       What practical steps must I take to deal with sin and nurture spiritual growth?
·       What should I expect as I pursue change?
·       How do I measure progress?
·       And how do other aspects of my life – my longings for happiness, my personal disciplines and habits, my sufferings and trials, and my relationships with other people – fit into all this? 

Dangers, Toils, and Snares

This journey towards holiness is further complicated by what the well-known hymn “Amazing Grace” describes as “many dangers, toils, and snares.” It is both terribly sad and undeniably true that a fair number of these perils have emerged from within Christianity itself.

Distortions of emphasis. Many Christian traditions, all of them undoubtedly well-intentioned, emphasize certain aspects of biblical teaching to the neglect of others, leaving unsuspecting Christians with distorted ideas or false expectations about spirituality.

·       Some put so much emphasis on having correct doctrine that the heart and affections get left behind in an overly intellectual approach to discipleship.
·       Others so heavily emphasize inward piety and the importance of spiritual experience that they effectively replace joyful faith in Christ with an unhealthy and myopic introspection.
·       Some neglect the work of the Holy Spirit altogether, leaving Christians with the impression that being holy is wholly dependent on moral effort and self-discipline.
·       Still others put so much focus on the Spirit that believers wrongly view the Christian life as nothing more than a passive acquiescence to the Spirit’s work.

Misrepresentations of the gospel. Even worse are teachings that eclipse the transforming power of the gospel altogether. These appear in two basic forms.

On one side of the spectrum are views that distort God’s grace in ways that give license to ongoing patterns of sin. This is the error that Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace . . . the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sins departs.”

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.[i]

But on the other side of the spectrum, and even more contrary to the gospel and more detrimental to spiritual health than “cheap grace,” are approaches to holiness that stress moral effort while neglecting the rich resources of God’s grace in the gospel. This legalistic approach to holiness rips the heart out of Christianity, leaving people with nothing but the dead form of performance-based religion.

In his essay, “The Centrality of the Gospel,” Tim Keller captures the gospel-centered balance we need:

The key for thinking out the implications of the gospel is to consider the gospel a “third” way between two mistaken opposites . . . Tertullian said, “Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves, so this doctrine of justification is ever crucified between two opposite errors.” Tertullian meant that there were two basic false ways of thinking, each of which “steals” the power and the distinctiveness of the gospel from us by pulling us “off the gospel line” to one side or the other. These two errors are very powerful, because they represent the natural tendency of the human heart and mind . . . These “thieves” can be called moralism or legalism on the one hand, and hedonism or relativism on the other hand. Another way to put it is: the gospel opposes both religion and irreligion. On the one hand, “moralism/religion” stresses truth without grace, for it says that we must obey the truth in order to be saved. On the other hand, “relativists/irreligion” stresses grace without truth, for they say that we are all accepted by God (if there is a God) and we have to decide what is true for us. But “truth” without grace is not really truth, and “grace” without truth is not really grace. Jesus was “full of grace and truth”. Any religion or philosophy of life that de-emphasizes or loses one or the other of these truths, falls into legalism or into license and either way, the joy and power and “release” of the gospel is stolen by one thief or the other.[ii]

These “two thieves” of legalism and license have plagued the church throughout its history, doing great damage and hindering many in their journey. It is directly between these extremes, therefore, that we must live, safe in the truth of the all-sufficient cross of Christ. This is how we reliably make progress toward the destination of Christlikeness.

To aid us on our way we need a good, accurate map. A map that not only tells where we are in the journey, but one that marks the path clearly and warns us of the dangers, toils, and snares—from our own hearts, from the temptations of this fallen world, and from well-meaning but misguided Christian teachers—that we will encounter along the way.

Piecing Together a Puzzle

My personal journey towards Christlikeness has certainly not been a straight line from conversion to transformation. I’ve often felt disappointed with my lack of progress and confused by the conflicting perspectives on how to change. But I’ve also experienced surges of growth as the Lord has opened to my mind the glories of Christ’s work in the gospel and the ways of his Spirit in the heart. Nor is my journey complete. I continue to fight sin and learn of my daily need for repentant faith in the crucified and risen Christ. My spiritual growth has been like putting together a jigsaw puzzle – slowly the borders have been formed and key pieces have fit into place, and the big picture has gradually taken shape.

This goal of this book is to explain where the process of transformation fits and how it happens in the Christian life. I hope to bring together various aspects of spiritual formation in a way that is unusual for most books. Many authors do a wonderful job of focusing on one or two of the following areas.

·       The content of the gospel – unfolding what God has done for us in the cross and resurrection of Christ.
·       The application of the gospel – discussing the implications of the cross for daily life.
·       The priority of holiness and the necessity of mortifying sin – explaining what holiness is and how putting sin to death is an essential and ongoing responsibility in any Christian’s life.
·       The motivating power in Christian spirituality – describing the inner dynamics of grace and joy in helping us glorify God through the pursuit of holiness.
·       The nature and means of spiritual transformation – explaining how people grow spiritually through the use of various methods (such as meditation and prayer).
·       The role of suffering in spiritual growth – encouraging us to embrace trials as one of God’s means of changing us.
·       The importance of community in our discipleship – reminding us that we need others to help us in our journey to Christlikeness.

I have been greatly helped by many of these books, authored by contemporary theologians and pastors such as J. I. Packer, John Piper, Sinclair Ferguson, Tim Keller, C. J. Mahaney, Don Carson, Paul Tripp, Jerry Bridges, and Don Whitney; as well as classic books on spirituality from previous generations written by great stalwarts of the faith such as Saint Augustine, John Calvin, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, and C. S. Lewis. As I’ve read from these authors over the past fifteen years, different pieces of the puzzle have slowly come together, giving shape to a larger vision of what the gospel is about and how it connects to the various dimensions of my spiritual life. My purpose in this book is to bring these pieces together, presenting a single, unified, gospel-centered vision of how to understand and live the Christian life.

The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change

Because you have picked up this book, you must feel the need for change in your own life. When you examine your attitudes, relationships, thought-patterns, and personal habits, it doesn’t take long to realize how far you still have to grow, does it? If you are like me, such self-assessment can quickly become discouraging! We know we need to change, but how do we pursue it?

My central claim in Christ Formed in You is that it is God’s purpose to change us by progressively making us more like Jesus, and that this happens only as we understand and apply the gospel to our lives. In the pages that follow we will explore the transforming power of the gospel from several angles.

·       Part One focuses on the foundations for personal change. We will look at God’s ultimate goal in transforming us (Chapter One); the key to transformation, which is the gospel itself (Chapter Two); and the application of the gospel to our lives in three specific ways (Chapters Three, Four, and Five).

·       Part Two then takes up the pattern of personal change. We will explore the captivating beauty of gospel holiness (Chapter Six); with its demands that we both kill sin (Chapter Seven); and grow in grace by the power of the Spirit (Chapter Eight); and the quest for joy that motivates us in this pursuit and strengthens us in the battle for holiness (Chapter Nine).

·       Part Three of the book focuses on the means of personal change, the tools God uses to transform us. These final three chapters, while building on the foundation of the gospel discussed earlier in the book, are the most practical. We will learn how God uses spiritual disciplines (Chapter Ten); suffering (Chapter Eleven); and personal relationships in the body of Christ (Chapter Twelve) to conform us to the image of Christ.

In each of these chapters, my aim has been to “connect the dots” between the gospel, the goal of Christlikeness, and the specific aspect of spirituality under discussion. As Keller writes, I want us to see that “we never ‘get beyond the gospel’ in our Christian life to something more ‘advanced’.”

The gospel is not the first “step” in a “stairway” of truths, rather, it is more like the “hub” in a “wheel” of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom. We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience, but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal.3:1-3) and are renewed (Col.1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom.1:16-17).[iii]

This explains what I mean by the subtitle of this book: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change. The seventeenth-century English Congregationalist pastor and theologian John Owen put it well in a sentence that summarizes the entire thrust of my book. He said, “Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing, and realizing of the gospel in our souls.” [iv] His treatises on the glory of Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, communion with God, the nature of indwelling sin, temptation, and the mortification of sin provided a road map for pursuing gospel-driven holiness.

While I would never venture to compare either the depth of my knowledge or the historical significance of my ministry to Owen’s, I have benefited greatly from his writings (along with those of Tim Keller and others) and hope that this book might serve in a similar way as a map for twenty-first century believers who long to experience the life-changing power of the gospel in their own journey toward holiness.

[i] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Collier Books, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1963 Revised Edition) 47.
[ii] Timothy Keller, “The Centrality of the Gospel,” Redeemer Presbyterian Church of New York City. Available online at: Accessed February 16, 2010.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] John Owen, A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit, in William H. Gould, ed., The Works of John Owen, vol. 3 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967 reprint of 1850-53 edition) 370-371.