We all want to change and grow in Christ.
But how does change happen? How does sanctification—or growth in Christ—occur? What is the power for progressive change?
Typically in biblical counseling we have talked about how people change. That’s a great phrase and one I’ve used and will continue to use.
However, lately I’ve been tweaking that language in an important way: how Christ changes people.
We can only change because of Christ’s saving grace that has already changed us (Romans 6; Ephesians 1:1-3:12; Colossians 3:1-11) and because of Christ’s sanctification grace that motivates and empowers us to change (Ephesians 3:13-21; Titus 2:11-12).
As I develop in detail in Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives, our salvation not only forgives our sin (justification) and reconciles us to God (reconciliation). Our salvation also changes us by implanting a new heart within us (regeneration) and embedding new resurrection power in us to be victorious over sin (redemption).[i]
How We Counsel Christians
How does the phrase, “how Christ changes people” impact how we counsel Christians? In thinking about the relationship between our salvation and our sanctification, some summarize it as, “sanctification is the art of getting used to our justification.”
I suggest a more biblically robust description. “Sanctification is the art of applying our justification, reconciliation, regeneration, and redemption.”[ii]
If sanctification is simply the art of getting used to our justification, then biblical counseling would either be unnecessary or consist only of reminders of our salvation. We would focus on the “indicatives” of our salvation (what Christ has done for us and who we are in Christ), rather than also addressing the “imperatives” of our salvation (how we live for and grow into the image of Christ).
Interestingly, Martin Luther, who many look to for this “indicative-only approach,” did not practice this approach. While Luther believed that reminders of our salvation and meditation on the indicatives are essential motivators for growth in grace, Luther practiced a both/and approach of faith active in love.[iii] In response to grace by faith (indicatives), empowered by grace we actively grow in grace as we love God and others (imperatives).
Others see sanctification primarily as imperative-only—“try harder.” Apart from grace motivation and grace empowerment, this approach to sanctification matches what the apostle Paul preaches against in Galatians 5:3. “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” If this were our view of sanctification, then discipleship would become little more than spotting a sin, confronting a sin, and exhorting behavioral change.
The biblical approach to sanctification is a both/and approach. Christ’s grace is both a salvation grace and a sanctification grace. We highlight both the indicatives of our salvation (Christ has already changed us) and the imperatives of our sanctification (Christ is empowering us to increasingly reflect His image). We must understand our salvation and we have a role to play in applying our salvation.
Sanctification Looks Like Christ
Many Christians have simply given up on sanctification. I’m convinced this is partially because we’ve mis-defined sanctification either as being exclusively of God (“let go and let God,” the indicative-only approach) or as self-effort obedience (“try harder,” the imperative-only approach).
I’m also convinced that many have given up on sanctification partially because we’ve made the goal so otherworldly and mystical. The Bible makes it so this-worldly, so human. Sanctification is increasingly becoming like Christ in His relating, thinking, choosing, and feeling. Our target is the heart—a heart that increasingly relates like, thinks like, chooses like, acts like, and responds to feelings like Christ does. Sanctification is both who we are and who we are becoming. In Christ we are regenerated human beings and we are sanctified human becomings—becoming more like Jesus.
Jay Adams taught this truth decades ago in his foundational work, The Christian Counselor’s Manual. “Be what you are. Basic to the New Testament concept of motivation is the task of becoming what you are. In a real sense we are not merely human beings, but also human becomings.[iv]
In Gospel-Centered Counseling, I unite a robust understanding of our salvation and our sanctification into the following definition:
Sanctification is the grace-motivated and grace-empowered art of applying our justification, reconciliation, regeneration, and redemption so that our inner life increasingly reflects the inner life of Christ (relationally, rationally, volitionally, and emotionally) as we put off the old dead person we once were and put on the new person we already are in Christ (relationally, rationally, volitionally, and emotionally).[v]
As biblical counselors, we journey with counselees in their growth-in-grace story empowering them to tap into Christ’s resurrection power that is already at work in their new heart. People learn and apply the gospel truth that “it’s supernatural to mature.” Christ’s grace changes people and empowers them to mature into His likeness—becoming more like Him in how we relate, think, choose, act, and respond to our feelings.
Biblical counseling for change involves empowering saints to apply the supernatural power of Christ’s grace to mature them into Christ’s likeness. God has planted within us the same resurrection power that raised Christ from the dead (Ephesians 1:5-23). The apostle Paul made it the goal of his sanctification to “know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Phil. 3:10). We help people to tap into, apply, and avail themselves of the resurrection power that is already in them. We stir up the new creation they already are in Christ.
Gospel Amnesia and Gospel Inertia
Peter takes this biblical counseling approach in 2 Peter 1:3-11. He starts by highlighting our new identity in Christ—our new nature as new creations.
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (2 Peter 1:3-4, emphasis added).
Peter doesn’t stop there. He fans into flame our new heart with these words.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins” (2 Peter 1:5-9, emphasis added).
Peter starts and ends with our identity in Christ as new creations. He insists that we avoid gospel amnesia—forgetting who we are in Christ. He also insists that we avoid gospel inertia—apathetically refusing to grow up in Christ.
Christian, the Face of Jesus Is in You!
Someone once asked Gutzon Borglum, the creative genius behind the presidential carvings on Mount Rushmore, “How did you ever create those faces out of that rock!?” Borglum replied, “I didn’t. Those faces were already in there. Hidden. I only uncovered them.”
Christian, the face of Jesus is already in there. In you! This is the essence of regeneration. God originates within us a new disposition toward holiness. Christlikeness is etched within. The Divine nature is embedded in our new nature (2 Peter 1:3-4; Colossians 3:1-11).
In sanctification, we yield to and cooperate with the Holy Spirit who uncovers the Christ who dwells within. To grow in Christ we need to understand and apply who we are in Christ. Once we are clear on the new person we are in Christ, we continue by faith active in love as we cooperate with the Divine Architect who daily transforms us increasingly into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:16-18). In biblical counseling it is our joyful privilege to join with our brothers and sisters in Christ on their growth-in-grace journey.
Join the Conversation
How does the phrase, “how Christ changes people” impact how we counsel Christians?
[i]See chapters 11-12 and 15-16 of Kellemen, Gospel-Centered Counseling: How Christ Changes Lives.
[iii]See chapter 6 of Kellemen, “Martin Luther’s Pastoral Counseling: Spiritual Care in Historical Perspective.”