by Dr. Jim Newheiser
During the past twenty years of working in a church-based biblical counseling ministry, in which I have tried to put these principles for change into practice, I have observed three general outcomes. Some counselees are quickly and radically transformed. I have seen cases in which a husband and wife who were already separated and moving toward divorce were in one session brought to heartbroken repentance as each confessed his or her own sin (Matthew 7:1-5) and granted forgiveness to the other, in light of the forgiveness we have received in the gospel (Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 18:21-35). I have also seen many cases in which the counselees went away sad and unchanged, like the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22). There are also cases in which change takes place gradually, at an almost glacial pace. We seek to give the same biblical, gospel-centered counsel to everyone who comes, but the results vary widely. Why is this?
Scripture teaches that God sovereignly chooses to work in the lives of his people in different ways, at different times, and at different speeds. Personal revival is like corporate revival in that we cannot make it happen on our own. We are completely dependent on God.
While we cannot change ourselves without God’s sovereign mercy and help, it is good for us to apply the means that God uses to bring about change in our lives.
The Church. The local church is central to God’s work in this age (1 Timothy 3:15), including his work of changing his people so that they are more holy and Christlike. We can expect the Lord to work in our lives as we eagerly attend worship, partake of the ordinances, hear the Bible faithfully proclaimed, and participate in the life of the body of Christ
Scripture. We should continually look to God’s Word to point us both to the life-transforming gospel and to the commands and principles of wisdom. “The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Jesus says that as we abide in his Word, we will be fruitful (John 15:7). The psalmist pleads with God, “My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to Your word” (Psalm 119:25).
Prayer. We should also continually pray that God will revive us and those whom we are trying to help or counsel. In Psalm 119, the psalmist repeatedly pleads with God for personal revival: “Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, and revive me in Your ways…Behold, I long for your precepts; revive me through your righteousness…Revive me according to Your lovingkindness; revive me, O Lord, according to your ordinances” (Psalm 119:37, 40, 88, 149). Jesus offers, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Given the context of Jesus’s promise in the Sermon on the Mount, I think we should be asking not for earthly riches and pleasures, but that God would change us so that our lives would reflect what Jesus was teaching. Do you pray for poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, and purity? Do you ask for a heart free from anger, lust, and deceit; for a religion which is untainted by hypocrisy; and for a life free from anxiety because you are devoted to God’s kingdom? God delights to answer such prayers.
Trials. God often brings circumstances into our lives which produce change that could have come no other way. The psalmist acknowledges, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word… It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psalm 119:67, 71). James also teaches that God uses trials to bring us to maturity – that is to change us for good: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
Counsel and admonition. Sometimes we, like King David, need a Nathan to come and admonish us so that we will finally turn from sin back to the Lord (2 Samuel 12). We should thank God for those who lovingly admonish us and point us back to Christ. “And concerning you my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another” (Romans 15:14). “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2). “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel” (Proverbs 12:15).
Ultimately, change is God’s work. While we are responsible for using biblical means to pursue holiness, we are completely dependent upon the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit to give us success in his perfect timing.