Can I Trust that God Will Change Me for the Better? (Study of Romans, Part 4: Romans 6:1–8:17)

Note: How do we find joy, hope, and peace in our lives? The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about that. He teaches that we do it by having more faith, hope, and love. In the 4th part of this study, we consider, can we trust that God will change us for the better? This is the 4th of an 8 part study of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 .

Key Thought: We grow in joy, peace, and hope by seeing and trusting that God is changing us into something glorious.

If God accepts us and forgives us no matter what, then why worry about what we do? That’s the question with which Paul begins his discussion of transformation in Romans 6:1. The answer? God not only accepts us, but He is transforming us and changing us into something glorious, into loving, patient, kind people of faith. A big part of our growth in joy, peace, and hope is learning to see, believe, and trust that God is changing us.

Four Metaphors for Transformation
Paul says that God not only is changing us, but He has definitively transformed us who believe in Christ into something new. He uses four metaphors to describe this transformation.

First, He compares the change to dying and rising again. Romans 6:4 says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” At our baptism, we made a definitive commitment to break with the world and sin and to live unto God. In addition, the power of Jesus’ resurrection is working in us to lead us to a new way of life and out of the way of the sinful life. That is a sort of death and resurrection.

Second, He compares the change to serving different masters. “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:17–18). We are now serving righteousness instead of sin. That is a definitive transformation.

Third, he compares the change to being released from a legal obligation as in the death of a spouse. He says that when a spouse is alive, a person is bound to that spouse, but when that spouse dies, then that person is no longer bound to the spouse. “So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God” (Rom. 7:5). We are released from the obligation to live for sin and now are bound to that which will bring us life.

Fourth, he compares the change to a law or principle that is at work in us. He calls the old law the law or principle of sin and death. When this law was at work in us, we might have thought that God’s commands were good, but we couldn’t do them (see Rom. 7). Now, there is a new law or principle at work in us. He says that “through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). The Spirit of God is at work within us to bring about what is good and right. There is a new principle at work in us, one that drives us to God instead of away from Him.

What we need to believe is that a definitive transformation has taken place. We need to trust what God has already done. We need to see again and again that we have been transformed. We have died to sin and are alive unto God. Learning to see and think this way is what it means to grow in the virtue of faith.

God Is Transforming Us, and We Cooperate in the Transformation
This does not mean that there is no more change to take place. The remnants of sin remain, and God is still working within us. There is a process of transformation. This inward transformation still has to work itself out.

Paul explains this in a variety of ways. There is suffering that has to test and grow our character (Rom. 5:3–5). There is an offering of every part of our body to the service of God (Rom. 6:13). In a later section of the letter, Paul will call it presenting ourselves as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1). The body is subject to death, but the Spirit is giving life (Rom. 8:10). You must put to death the misdeeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). These are ways that Paul talks about this process.

Notice that this is all work that is done by the power of God. However, that does not mean that we are passive in this transformation. Not at all. We are active. We should use every fiber of our being to join in what God is already doing within us. We offer our bodies. We put to death the deeds of the flesh. We work to change our thinking. We are to think of ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God. This is what it means to be transformed by the renewing of our mind (see Rom. 12:2). In all of these ways, we play an active role. Being changed into the glorious image of God is the highest blessing. Because of that we should do all we can to lean into this transformation, and God invites us and commands us to do so.

God Will Transform Us
We also have to ask, what is God transforming us into? It is something glorious. He is making us like His Son, Jesus. That’s our destiny (Rom. 8:29–30). He is transforming us into light. That’s why when we look at the future, we can have hope. Hope is a firm expectation that our future will be good. That’s what we’ll look at in the next section.

We need to grow in our faith so that we see more and more clearly that God not only has forgiven us and accepts us but is transforming us into something glorious. The more we can believe that, the greater will be our joy, peace, and hope. Note, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This is the virtue of faith. It enables us to see and believe all that God is and all that He is doing for us.

A few months ago, I was thinking about what it would be like to no longer serve as a pastor. It would involve a lot of changes. What would be my place in life? How would I relate to people? What would my life be like? I did not know, and I felt uneasy and unsure about it. But then I found peace. I realized that whatever else happened to me, God was changing me into something glorious, and that was enough. Seeing and believing that fact could give me joy, peace, and hope no matter what happened. That’s the message God has for us in Romans 6:1–8:17.

Outline to Construct Your Own Teaching on Romans 6:1–8:17

  1. How does Paul describe the old person or the “flesh” in these passages?
  2. What are the ways that Paul describes the definitive transformation that has taken place in those who have believed in Jesus?
  3. What passages tell us that this transformation is ongoing?
  4. How does Paul describe our activity in this transformation process?
  5. How does Paul work here to increase their faith that God is changing them?

Questions for Application

  1. Do you believe that God has changed and is changing you? How could you make that more a part of your thinking and life?
  2. How is this teaching an encouragement to you that would enable you to develop joy, peace, and hope?
  3. What do you need to do to be more active in joining what God is already doing in transforming you?


Photo by Ricardas Brogys on Unsplash

Pulling in the Same Direction: Working with God in our Sanctification/Transformation

How do we become what God has made us to become? Can we become what we are supposed to become? Can we fulfill our potential? Can we become joyful, content, and just people instead of angry, frustrated, and selfish people?

The answer that the Christian faith gives us is that on our own we cannot become what we are supposed to become. On our own, we are stuck. However, the message of the Christian faith is that the same power by which God raised Jesus from the dead is a power that is available to anyone to enable them to become what God has called them to be.

This raises several questions. First, if this is true, then why are so many Christians angry, upset, materialistic, and even mean? Continue reading “Pulling in the Same Direction: Working with God in our Sanctification/Transformation”

Luther on the Great Value of Good Works

Some beautiful quotes from Martin Luther on the value of good works:

  1. Outside the article of justification we cannot sufficiently praise and magnify these works which are commanded by God. For who can sufficiently commend and set forth the profit and fruit of only one work which a Christian does through faith and in faith? Indeed, it is more precious than heaven or earth.
  2. We teach that to reconcile God, to make righteous, to blot out sin, is so high and great and glorious a work that alone Christ, the Son of God could do it and that this is indeed such a pure, special, peculiar work of the one true God and His grace that our works are nothing and can do nothing. But that good works should be nothing or be worth only a penny, who ever heard of such a thing, or who could teach such a thing except the lying mouth of the devil? I would not give up one of my sermons, not one of my lectures, not one of my treatises, not one of my Lord’s Prayers, nay, whatever small work I have ever done or am doing, for all the riches of the world (Cited in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 3:59–60

Justification and Sanctification: God’s Gifts to Faith

The goal of grace is to re-engage humanity in service to the glory of God and the life of the human community. To do this, the human pride that seeks to make ourselves or our nations the center of the universe must be shattered. This requires a humble acceptance of God’s verdict and our sinfulness and a reception of His offer of security, love, and forgiveness. This acceptance frees us from the burden of anxiety and so releases us for the adventure of love.

Here we consider this same event from God’s perspective. God offers power and grace, sanctification and justification, as the solution to human pride and misery. From God’s standpoint, the gifts given to faith are justification and sanctification. This is grace shown to man and power working in man. It is forgiveness and transformation, a new status and a new character. God forgives, and He transforms. For Niebuhr, it is important to see that God does both, and that these are two distinct gifts.

When someone believes in Christ, they achieve a perfect righteousness. However, this righteousness is not theirs internally. It is only theirs by imputation. “The Christ who is apprehended by faith, i.e., to whom the soul is obedient in principle, ‘imputes’ his righteousness to it. It is not an actual possession except ‘by faith’” (The Nature & Destiny of Man, 2.103). “Impute” means to consider, to think, to reckon. God counts the righteousness of Christ as ours, so that God sees us as if we had never sinned nor been a sinner, indeed, as if we had accomplished what Christ Himself did. Continue reading “Justification and Sanctification: God’s Gifts to Faith”

Is God Telling His People to “Be Better”?

“Put off your old self . . . and put on the new.” That’s one of the central teachings of the Christian faith.

Does this just mean “be better”? You could take it that way.

And, of course, there is one sense in which God commands us to be better. It is always our moral obligation from God to be better: to love more, to hate less, to be more kind, and to forgive.

There is also some advantage to a reminder to “be better.” How often do I think, for example, that I’m supposed to pursue “compassion” or avoid “slander”? It’s good for me to be reminded that this is what I’m supposed to do.

The problem is that I fail. The commandment just isn’t enough to get me where I need to be. It’s more like the New Year’s resolution that I continue for a week and then forget (and usually don’t do perfectly even that one week!).

Further, the Bible teaches that salvation and transformation is a gift of God’s grace from first to last. How do we square this with the call to “be better”?

One way people have understood this is to recognize that the commandment is good but that we need God’s grace to fulfill it. As Augustine said, “Command what you will, and give what you command.”

I do believe that this is taught in Scripture. However, I’m not sure that this is what the Apostle Paul is after in Ephesians 4:22–24 when he tells us to put off the old self and put on the new.

I take his command more like this: accept the work of God’s grace in your life and avail yourselves of everything God provides in order to make you what He calls you to be.

Let me suggest that this involves at least 5 things.

First, confront the issue. Sin is not simple. It is complex. It involves a way of thinking, wrong desires, and even ignorance (see Eph. 4:17–19). We need to do more than look at the outward action. We need to consider where our heart is, what our mindset is, and what our thinking is.

Two ways that I have found particularly helpful for discerning the pattern of sin are to look at my strong emotions and desires. When we feel strong negative emotions like anger or anxiety, it is an opportunity for us to examine what’s going on under the hood. When our desires take over us and lead us in wrong directions, it’s a good idea to ask, what is the source of these desires? Why am I wanting this recreation, relationship, or reaction so much?

This consideration will help us see more clearly how we need God’s grace to work in our lives.

Second, convert our thinking. It’s not just about behavior. It’s what’s in our hearts and minds that is the issue. Paul begins his discussion of the old self in this passage by saying there is “futile thinking.” The new self involves being renewed “in the attitude of our minds” (Eph. 4:23).

For example, if we think our acceptance is based on what other people think of us, we will be continually frustrated (futile thinking!). If we believe our acceptance is based on God’s view of us, we are open to the peace that is available to us in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:7). So, we convert our thinking by keeping in mind all the things that God has said about His grace in Ephesians 1–3, that we have “every spiritual blessing in Christ.”

Third, connect to God’s grace. In the first part of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul speaks of God “enlightening our hearts” and “giving us power to see.” Transformation is a gift of God’s grace.

However, there are places where God’s grace is flowing. We call these “the means of grace.” They include the Word of God, the sacraments, prayer, and people. If we want to experience God’s grace, we should humbly make use of the means that God has given to experience His grace.

Fourth, continue in grace-empowered effort. It is important that this not come first, but it plays a part. I believe we should try hard to be compassionate and kind, but this is not always the effort that is needed. Sometimes the effort is working on re-shaping our thinking, making time to spend with Jesus, devoting ourselves to prayer, and taking the risk of connecting with people who can help us.

Fifth, conform to the pattern of Christ. It is important for us to remember that the call to transformation is always directed toward Christ as the power for transformation and as the example to which transformation will conform. “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us” (Eph. 5:2).

If we just look at ourselves, we might not have any hope for transformation. Looking to Christ and the power of His resurrection, we have tremendous hope for change! We don’t have to rest in the same old patterns. By God’s grace, we can experience the grace of out with the old and in with the new. Christ is risen!