This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(88) Q. What is involved in genuine repentance or conversion?
A. Two things: the dying-away of the old self, and the rising-to-life of the new.
(89) Q. What is the dying-away of the old self?
A. To be genuinely sorry for sin and more and more to hate and run away from it.
(90) Q. What is the rising-to-life of the new self?
A. Wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a love and delight to live according to the will of God by doing every kind of good work.
(91) Q. But what are good works?
A. Only those which are done out of true faith,conform to God’s law,and are done for his glory; and not those based on our own opinion or human tradition.
Most of us have a similar attitude toward change. We don’t like it. And we have our reasons. Change is uncomfortable. We prefer what we know. We all eventually dislike new music in favor of what is familiar to us (yes, so will you!). And in preferential matters reluctance to change is fine.
But we also resist spiritual change. We can grow comfortable doing what God forbids and avoiding what he requires. But we must be changed. To be saved we must “turn to God from [our] ungrateful and impenitent ways” (Q&A 87). We must be converted.
And conversion is more than a one-time event. In the new birth believers die to sin. Consequentially we may no longer live in it (Rom. 6:1). Jesus told his those already following him that “unless you are converted … you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3 NKJ). Even believers must put off their old selves and put on the new (Eph. 4:22, 24). Conversion—or spiritual transformation—begins with the radical change of regeneration. But it continues with the ongoing positive change of sanctification, our grateful response to God’s grace.
You Must Put to Death Your Old Self
Growing in your relationship with God requires a growing negative relationship to sin (Rom. 8:13).
Converted people increasingly sorrow over sin.
We’ve been told that guilt is harmful to us; we need to retrain our attitudes so that we feel good about all that we are and do. But the new self is truly heartbroken over sin (Ps. 51:17). Peter was right to weep bitterly when he denied Christ (Mark 14:72). James tells us to mourn and weep over our sin, humbling ourselves so that God will lift us up (4:9, 10). Even some secular people recognize that we should feel pain when we have done badly. But godly sorrow goes further; it produces repentance—better understanding and actions—which leads to salvation through God’s grace (2 Cor. 7:9, 10).
Converted people increasingly hate sin.
Spiritually new people “abhor what is evil” (Rom. 12:9). And not just in others but in ourselves too (7:15). We hate the damage our sins cause. Our harsh words can destroy peace among friends. Our lust can stifle intimacy within marriage, even if we aren’t yet married. But no matter the consequences, we should hate sin because God hates it. God’s “wrath … against sin is so great that He, rather than leaving it unpunished, has punished it in his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, with the bitter and shameful death of the cross.”[i] We cannot love sin and God.
Converted people increasingly run from sin.
Sometimes this means literally fleeing the scene (Gen. 39:12). When confronted with the sin of anger or lust, it might help to take a walk. You cannot fight all sin by running. But those who learn to sorrow over and hate sin go to great lengths to keep temptation far away. We may give no opportunity to the devil (Eph. 4:27).
But resisting sin can’t be all negative energy. We can’t sorrow, hate, and run our way into a new life. A rodeo clown can’t forever run from an angry bull; he must run toward a place of safety. Sinners can’t only run from sin; we must run to the safety of God. Our ability to resist sin must be energized by new life.
You Must Come to Life in the New Self
Rising to new life means coming to delight in God and in his will.
Converted people delight in God.
The “rising-to-life of the new self” is “wholehearted joy in God through Christ.” When given freedom we tend to do what we think will give joy. So as we become more spiritually whole we no longer believe sin’s promises. We doubt that pornography will fulfill us, that belittling others will make us accepted, or that stealing will make us secure. We now know that true joy is only found in genuine fellowship with God. As we believe God, we find that temptations’ promises lose their grip on our hearts. We say “no” to sin by saying “yes” to God and the blessed hope we find in him (Titus 2:12). As we come to love God’s voice in Scripture, and become “renewed in knowledge after the image of [our] creator” (Col. 3:10), we find joy that we had been seeking elsewhere.
Converted people delight in God’s will.
We are designed to find joy in what God wants. But how can that happen? Our best acts are spurred by love. But in the fall we lost our delight to do God’s will because we stopped loving God. In conversion God pours his love into our hearts (Rom. 5:5). Because we love God, doing his will is no longer burdensome (John 14:15; 1 John 5:3). Believers begin to want what God wants and do what he wants.
But how do we know what God wants? This question is vital because often ethical decisions are “based on our own opinion or human tradition.” But opinions can deceive us. Human traditions can be a hodgepodge of biblical spirituality, pop psychology, and strategies for communal self-preservation. Truly God-honoring works have three essential traits. First, good works proceed from true faith. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23). We cannot do good while sinning against biblically-informed consciences. “Without faith it is impossible to please God;” we must believe that God exists and that he truly cares about our actions (Heb. 11:6).
Second, good works are lawful. Christians are not under law; we are not in bondage to the law as slaves (Rom. 6:14). Instead, the law becomes for us the way sons honor their Father. Lawful works are God-like works: whoever believes in Jesus will do the works that Jesus did (John 14:12). Against all right behavior there is no true law (Gal. 6:23).
Third, good works are done for God’s glory. If we do works to be praised by others, we cancel their goodness. People-pleasers forfeit heavenly rewards (Eph. 6:6; Matt. 6:2). For God-pleasers, reward is an afterthought.
Change can be hard. But would it be worth it if change meant being remade “in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24)? Only God can fix our mess and make us holy. But he does it through our participation in his program of change as we put off our “former manner of life” and put on the new self (Eph. 4:22).
[i] “Celebration of the Lord’s Supper—Form 1,” https://formsandprayers.com/liturgical-form/#9.