Monday, August 27, 2007

A Distinct and Radical Change

“Real conversion by the Holy Spirit is as distinct and radical a change as though an old man were placed in a mill and ground young again.” ~ C.H. Spurgeon

Every Wednesday night I lead a Discussion Fellowship Meeting at my church. The meetings are patterned after the meetings D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones led at Westminster Chapel (London), in the 40’s and 50’s. The purpose of the meetings is to give members of the conversation the opportunity to ask their open and honest Bible questions, with all in attendance encouraged to participate in finding the answers in God’s Word.

Last Wednesday night, I began the discussion by asking the group to consider the above quote, by Charles Spurgeon. This led us into an hour-long discussion about sanctification, in which we addressed sanctification as an event that takes place at the moment of conversion, a process that spans the entirety of a Christian’s life on earth, and a hope of the full realization of a Christian’s sanctification, when he or she is glorified in heaven, with the Lord Jesus Christ.

One phrase in Spurgeon’s quote leaped out at me: “as distinct and radical a change.” A person who is truly born again; a person who is justified by the grace of God and declared innocent; a person who is sanctified (set apart to be holy) by the sovereign God of the Universe will exhibit the reality of their conversion through a distinct and radical change in his or her life. It is this distinct and radical change, which is solely the work of God the Holy Spirit, which marks the true convert from the false convert.

The notion that someone can make a profession of faith in Christ and be saved, yet live their life in the same state of sinful rebellion in which they lived before their profession of faith, and still be assured of salvation, is a concept that is foreign to Scripture. Do Christians sin? Yes. There is an aspect of sanctification that is a life-long process. However, if a person is growing and maturing in his or her faith in Christ, they will desire to and try to flee from sin and pursue Christ-likeness (1 Tim. 6:11-12), turning to the gracious and merciful God for forgiveness (1 John 1:9) when they fall short of His glory (Romans 3:23). Such authentic spiritual growth begins the moment the person becomes a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

If the only evidence of this truth was God’s Word, that would be enough. God’s Word is sufficient in every respect (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But I would also like to humbly submit a portion of my own testimony, which, I believe, serves as experiential confirmation that conversion results in a distinct and radical change in a person’s life. Granted, others have testimonies far more dramatic than mine. And while what I’m about to share is true, I know I am still a sinner who falls short of God’s glory. Sanctification: while it was an event in my life, and while I wait with great anticipation for the fulfillment of my sanctification in heaven, it is most certainly a continual process in my life. What follows is shared in light of the reality that He who began a good work in me will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6); but, in the meantime I am in constant need of God’s grace and forgiveness for the sins I commit daily against Him; and I need His patience as I seek to grow in Christ-likeness.

With that said…..

I cried out to God in repentance and faith, on September 4, 1988. That evening, while home alone in the dark and quiet of my bedroom, I asked Him to save me from the just punishment of my sin, and I asked Him to be my Lord and Savior. I fell asleep unsure of my salvation. But God graciously allowed me to see and experience evidence of a distinct and radical change in my life, the next evening.

I was a young deputy sheriff assigned to one of the county’s medium security jail facilities. The facility was an open compound, which meant that the inmates were housed in 120-man dorms, with no locks on the doors. At times, a dozen deputies were responsible for the security and discipline of more than 1,000 inmates.

I learned early on that in order for the deputies to maintain control of the facility and the inmates within, the deputies had to make sure that inmates understood who was in control (even if it was an illusion). This required us to be forceful with our words and with our actions. I was taught by more seasoned deputies (most of whom had less than a year’s more experience than me) that in order to communicate with the inmates, I had to learn how to talk like them—meaning every sentence I spoke should be laced with profanity. I was also taught how to walk that very fine tightrope that separated discipline and abuse—a line that was often moved according to the needs of the moment, with one eye on the law and department policy—a line that was subjective. I quickly learned and effectively applied these two unwritten rules.

The evening after receiving Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, I found myself working my usual post in the jail compound. Throughout my shift, as I engaged deputies and inmates in conversation, I found that I could not speak the way to which I was accustomed. It was not that I was physically incapable of using profanity. It was that the thought of doing so repulsed me. Having never heard of the word sanctification, I had no idea that my new found repulsion to profanity was a work of the Holy Spirit. Quite frankly, it was unsettling—so unsettling that I tried to cuss throughout the night, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Several hours into my shift, it dawned on me that the reason I had such difficulty using profanity might be due to the profession of faith I made the previous night. The unsettling feelings were then replaced with joy. “Maybe He has changed me!” I thought.

Even more telling was what happened toward the end of my shift.

Every night we were responsible for conducting a count of the inmates. It was during this time, when all of the inmates were on their bunks, that we would also conduct what we referred to as “court.” The purpose of “court” was to “counsel” those inmates who had given us a hard time, disrespected us, or otherwise tried to usurp our authority. Inmates were specifically selected, solely on the basis of their bad behavior, and removed from their dorm. The other inmates knew what it meant to be escorted outside the dorm, after the evening count.

“Departmentally approved” holds were applied with the maximum amount of “reasonable” force in order to secure the inmate while he was verbally counseled about his bad behavior. The inmate was assured by a group of less-than-patient, yet enthusiastic deputies that future bad behavior would not be tolerated and any return to “court” by the inmate would result in equally swift, yet harsher adjudication. Rarely, were inmates repeat offenders. Rarely, did an inmate find himself facing evening “court” more than once.

As the evening count drew to a close, several deputies approached me in the compound. “Come on, Tony. It’s time for court. We’ve got a few inmates we need to deal with.”

I was sitting on a bench when the deputies approached me. As soon as they told me it was time for “court,” I got up from my seat, just as I had done previously, countless times. But, unlike in nights past, as quick as I got off the bench, I found myself sitting down again.

The other deputies, who had already started walking toward the dorms, turned to see me still sitting on the bench. They walked back to me and said, “Come on, Tony. Let’s go. It’s time for ‘court.’”

“Sorry, guys. I can’t”

“What do you mean you can’t?”

I found their question to be very reasonable, since I was asking the same question of myself. “What do I mean I can’t?”

“Umm. Yeah, I can’t go to ‘court’ tonight.”

I knew what I was going to say next. The thought frightened me. It was as if I had no control. It was as if I was outside my body watching the scene play out, from a short distance away. Deputies hate to be out of control…..ever.

“I became a Christian last night; and I don’t think I should be participating in ‘court’ anymore.”

“Right!” One of the deputies retorted. “You became a Christian last night. Tony Miano is a Christian. Very funny. Come on. We’ve got work to do.”

“I’m serious, guys. I became a Christian last night; and I don’t think God wants me to participate in ‘court’ anymore. I will be there to back you up, if you get into a fight. I’m not going to let you get hurt. But I don’t think ‘court’ is right.”

Needless to say, the deputies were not happy with me. They questioned everything from my ability as a deputy sheriff to my manhood. I actually lost friends that night. For weeks following that night, I found notes in my work mailbox that simply said, “Jesus Freak.” Others went as far as to write the epitaph (and others) on the chalkboard, in the briefing room.

Thanks be to God that He allowed me to meet and fellowship with other Christian deputies that worked the jail. They were a great encouragement to me, as I struggled to understand a worldview that completely changed overnight. They helped me to learn how to be a Christian and a deputy sheriff, at the same time.

Within 24 hours of my conversion, the Lord allowed me to see, in remarkable ways, the changes He was making in me. By His great grace and mercy, He allowed me to have a glimpse of the new heart he had given me (Psalm 51:10). The change was so distinct, so radical, and so contrary to my nature that I had no choice but to give God all the credit and glory. These were not changes I could have made on my own or, quite frankly, would have wanted to make on my own. Although a veritable infant in my faith, I was already learning that God was sovereign (even though I did not yet know what the word meant).

Through the quieting of my tongue and the taming of the physical and judicial power my badge afforded me, God showed me that I now belonged to Him. He had justified me by the innocent shed blood of Jesus Christ, and thus declared me innocent for my myriad sins against Him. He saved me, not on the basis of anything I had done; but exclusively through the redemptive work of His Son Jesus Christ, God in the flesh (Titus 3:5-7).

In that same miraculous moment, He set me apart—sanctifying and adopting me as one of His beloved children (Romans 8:14-17, 28-30). And, in doing so, Jesus Christ began an ongoing, sanctifying work in my life, with the first fruits (Matthew 3:8) bearing witness to the miracle of my salvation on that late summer evening, on a county jail compound.

Let me again stress that sanctification is a process. It is true in my life. Like Paul, I am a wretched man who continues to battle sin (Romans 7:14-25). I cannot thank God enough for His amazing grace. Because of His Word, and because of the sanctifying work of Christ in my life, I am confident about my salvation—for it is by grace I have been saved, through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Do you have this same confident assurance? If asked, to what can you point that testifies to a distinct and radical change in your life, which could only be brought about by the work of an all-powerful, sovereign God?

Have you made a profession of faith in Christ, but there has been no appreciable change in your character or behavior? Do you still cling to your sin and love your sin, whatever it is? Do you profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, yet you do not love His Word, you do not enjoy communion with Him through prayer, and you do not desire healthy fellowship with other genuine followers of Christ? Do you profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, yet you do not have any desire to share your testimony and the gospel with unbelievers? Do you profess to be a follower of Jesus Christ, yet you find no contentment in your life, regardless of the circumstances (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)?

If any of these things are true about you, is it possible that you are not born again? Is it possible that you are a false convert—a person who thinks they are saved, thinks they are a Christian, when they are not?

If this is you, then let me encourage you. Allow me to plead with you. Set aside your sinful pride and do what the apostle Paul told the Corinthians to do. “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves (2 Corinthians 13:5a)!

Here’s a simple test you can take.

Do you consider yourself to be a good person? Most people do. But no one is good according to God’s perfect standard (Romans 3:10-12). Each of us has broken God’s Law. If you don’t believe it, then honestly answer the following questions.

Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen anything? Have you ever taken God’s name in vain? Then according to God’s Law, and by your own admission, you are a lying, thieving, blasphemer at heart. Every lawbreaker will one day find himself standing before God, the righteous Judge. The verdict will be “guilty.” And the sentence will be “death”—eternity in the torment of hell.

The good news is that God doesn’t want to send you to hell. So, He sent His sinless Son, Jesus Christ—God in the flesh. He took upon himself the punishment you rightly deserve for your sins against God when He shed His innocent blood and died on the cross. Three days later, He defeated death when He rose from the grave. So, what must you do to be saved? Your only hope is to recognize that you cannot save yourself and escape God’s judgment. You must confess your sins against God, repent (turn away from your sins), and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation.

When you receive Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, He will be faithful to begin the work of sanctification in your life—a work He will complete when you go to spend eternity with Him, in heaven. He will make distinct and radical changes in your life, all for His glory.

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