How can a person change? Is it possible for people to truly change and to stop behaviors that are destructive or immoral and begin actions that are edifying and helpful and holy? In this article we will attempt to answer these and other related questions.
GUILT, ADMITTING WRONG, AND REFORM
There is no power in the guilt that comes from a pricked conscience. When a person does something wicked or disobedient, their conscience accuses them of wrong (Romans 2:15) and there follows a momentary pang of guilt. But that guilt is quickly suppressed and forgotten so that the sinful behavior can continue uninterrupted. The sinner appreciates the comfort of a seared conscience.
Ah, but there is power in the conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11). Rather than merely a passing pang of guilt, this conviction of the Holy Spirit is persistent. Conviction is not easily dismissed. It urges a significant response. Rather than being suppressed, the conviction demands that the underlying sin be dealt with.
There is no power in merely admitting that you did something wrong. Indeed, admitting wicked acts can be done with defiance and evil pride. “whose glory is in their shame (Philippians 3:19).” The most deceitful of hearts can admit that something they did would be considered wrong by some.
Ah, but there is power in seeing my sin as sin and then confessing my sin to the Lord. I acknowledge my sin as rebellion before the Lord (Psalm 32:3-6). Confessing my sin means telling the Lord that what I did was sin. I confess that I have rebelled against the living God.
Against You, You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight (Psalm 51:4).
REFORM AND REPENTANCE
And now we come to the heart of the matter. For guilt and admission of wrong, or conviction and confession are merely preliminaries, because the goal is changed behavior. For changes in behavior, we have two tools: reform and repentance. There is no power in reform, but there is great power in repentance.
Reform is an attempt at behavior modification while the rebel inside remains. Attempts at reform assume that changing the external behavior means the person has changed. But reform of a person’s external behavior while their “inner man” remains enslaved to sin is an exercise in futility. The modified behavior conflicts with the fundamental nature of the rebel. The rebel inside detests the new behavior and despises those who constrain his sin. He longs to return to the freedom of his slavery to sin.
The rebel still loves the old behavior but pretends to like different, “better” behavior for some selfish reason. Thus, the rebel strives to reform their external behavior while their heart still loves rebellion. The new behavior lasts as long as the rebel can endure the repugnant modifications and can suppress their cravings for the old ways, but sooner or later, the rebel emerges. The internal conflict is too great, the love of sin is too powerful, and the reforms are the casualty. “The dog returns to its own vomit” and “The pig returns to wallowing in the mire.” The rebel returns to the comfort of his rebellion, and once again, reform is exposed as useless, as a vain attempt to prevent the rebel’s headlong sprint to their own destruction. Reform fails because the rebel remains. But reform is the best you can hope for if you are working with a rebel.
Repentance is different. Repentance is unavailable to the rebel, because repentance is founded on the existence of a heartfelt desire for permanent change, and the rebel’s deceitful heart of stone only desires sin. Ah, but if we change the rebel into a saint, from a slave of sin into a slave of righteousness, then instead of the uselessness of reform, there is the power of repentance. The shackles of sin have been shattered and have been replaced with a hunger and thirst for righteousness. The person has been changed, so they are free to change.
“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” – John 8:36
The Son has set the rebel free, so now the former rebel detests their old behavior and puts their old behavior to death (Colossians 3:5) by repentance. There is great power in repentance, in actively hating the sins that I see in my life, and confessing them, and then changing my behavior and turning from those sins. I have been set free, so I can change! The power of repentance is in asking the Lord to remove these loathsome sins from my life. “Make me more like Jesus, O Lord! Help me to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel! Help me to walk as Jesus walked.” Repentance is the powerful tool that allows the changed person to change.
SDG rmb 5/6/2021