Change and the Superior Joy of the Gospel

Last night I began reading Tim Chester’s new book You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions. Some you may recognize the name Chester from his previous book, Total Church (co-authored with fellow pastor, theologian, and missiologist Steve Timmis). Timmis and Chester are part of a church-planting network in England known as The Crowded House (hence the quintessentially British names). In the last few years, both men have contributed a great deal to the fresh emphasis in reformed circles (i.e., Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll, and Jeff Vanderstelt) on community, mission and the gospel. You Can Change (as the title so unadornedly foreshadows) is essentially a guidebook on the aims, motivations, and means of biblical change. It is, to put the matter succinctly, a book on sanctification.

To that end, Chester begins his argument by making an important claim about the nature of biblical change, a claim which closely resembles John Piper’s now well-known sanctification-model, “Christian Hedonism.” Chester asserts:
One of our problems [with change] is that we think of holiness as giving up things we enjoy out of vague sense of obligation. But I’m convinced that holiness is always good news. God calls us to the good life. He’s always bigger and better than anything sin offers. The key is to realize why change is good news in your struggles with sin (10).

The secret of gospel change is being convinced that Jesus is the good life and the fountain of all joy. Any alternative we might choose would be a letdown (15).
Chester’s point (as the first three chapters go on to explain) is that real change both begins with and is pursued through two deeply-related and predominately internal acts of faith.

First, we must go about the often very slippery work of exposing sin (partcularly our own personal private sin) for what it really is. We must start, in other words, by concentrating on and creating in our hearts a real and tangible sense of both sin’s ugliness as well as its corrosive and destructive nature. At an emotional level, the pain that sin has caused in our lives previously is perhaps our best and most useful ally. Taking hold of that pain and in a very real sense reliving it (especially in the face of temptation) is one of the most practical tools we can deploy in our struggle with sin.

At an intellectual, conscious level, this means unmasking the false promises upon which sin operates. The attractiveness of sin (i.e., its “power”) is rooted in the false belief that sin will provide for us more joy and pleasure than will righteousness. This is especially true of the idols in our lives that hold us captive to their allure and deceptive beauty either through sheer, raw magnetism or through years of ingrained practice.

Bringing together the emotional and intellectual levels of this task, Chester describes sin as an “adulterous lover,” which in reality is “no love at all”:
Sin doesn’t love us. It tries to use us, abuse us, enslave us, control us, and ultimately destroy us. Sin takes from us and gives nothing in return. It may use enticing and seductive lies. Sin never brings true and lasting satisfaction (33).
This, then, lead us immediately into the second act of faith the change process demands: we must replace sin’s deceptive and inauthentic beauty with the thoroughly authentic and transformative beauty of the gospel. Our aim (as the Psalmist says) is to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” In other words, we must sense in our hearts (that is, at the very core of who we are) that there is more joy to be found in God’s ways then there is to be found in ours. It is not as though sanctification robs us of joy (though this claim, normally unspoken, certainly lies at the very heart of sin’s deceptive dogma). Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, it is sanctification that provides us with both a foundation for as well as a means of experiencing substantial, life-establishing happiness.

Again, Tim Chester:
[G]rowing in holiness is not sad, dutiful drudgery. It’s about joy. It’s discovering true joy—the joy of knowing and serving God. . . . Our job is to stop wallowing around in the dirt and instead to enjoy knowing God, to give up our cheap imitations and enjoy the real thing. All too often we think of holiness as giving up the pleasures of sin for some worthy but drab life. But holiness means recognizing that the pleasures of sin are empty and temporary, while God is inviting us to magnificent, true, full, and rich pleasures that last forever (35-36).
In the end, the only way we will actually begin to choose righteousness over sin consistently, the only way we will begin to really live a life marked by holiness and maturity, is by convincing ourselves (at the level of our hearts) that the former is more to be desired, more to be longed for, more to be enjoyed than the latter. Only when we see and experience the superior joy offered to us in the gospel will change become a reality.

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