You can change. You can change. You can change.
It’s a message so simple and promising, bandied about in various forms by psychologists, counselors, TV hosts, politicians, and authors (yes, even those espousing to be followers of Christ). Yet, for all its simplicity, the majority of discussion, advices, and words written on the subject are nothing but emptiness. One can understand, then, why a reader might be skeptical about opening a book with this particular title. Such was the case when I bought and opened You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions by Tim Chester.
That skepticism, as it relates to this book, is completely unfounded.
You Can Change is, I think, the best book I have read in years, and maybe the best book I’ve ever read regarding sanctification (or, as Chester helpfully defines it, tranformation). This short review is intended to let you know what to expect should you, hopefully, pick it up your yourself.
It is very popular for Christians to quote Romans 8:28 as a means of comfort, and appropriately so. However, all too often we don’t believe that promise is being fulfilled by God in us. We don’t believe that all things are working for the good of we who love God, because we aren’t loving God the way we ought. We are not satisfied with Him. We don’t see Him, and ourselves being made more like Him, as the good God has promised. We aren’t letting God define good. We aren’t loving Him nor are we trusting in Him enough to know that He is the reward and the good. As Chester puts it, “We shouldn’t be disappointed that the promise of good things turns out to be conformity to Christ. . . . The secret of gospel change is being convinced that Jesus is the good life and the fountain of all joy” (15). The thesis of Chester’s work, then, is that true change does not take place when we seek to become better, even better Christians, but when “we turn to see the glory of God in Jesus” (19). Chester is spot on in this analysis.
The author challenges the reader to consider something in his life, a sin, that he wants to change. Each chapter, then, concludes with some reflection about this “change project” as well some challenges to help the reader start to think differently about his sin. That’s really the crux of the matter, according to Chester. Even if we are too orthodox in our doctrine to admit we can never do enough to impress God, that’s not how we live. Any attempt, then, to live in such a manner inevitably puts ourselves at the center of our change project, “and that’s pretty much the definition of sin” (25).
That type of change nullifies the cross of Christ. It’s a life that, in effect, says we need more than Jesus. But that’s not what the Bible says. The Bible exhorts us to be who we are, and if we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, our identity is found in Him. Chester, in fact, develops a very trinitarian view of who we are – child of the Father, bride of the Son, home of the Holy Spirit.
The author very helpfully boils the appeal of legalism down to two reasons: 1) it makes holiness manageable, and 2) it makes holiness an achievement on our part (44). No one claims to be a legalist but at times we all are. Chester explains that God has liberated us from sin, even though we live like former prisoners in it. I couldn’t help, when he mentioned that, of thinking about Brooks and Red and being institutionlized in the film “The Shawshank Redemption.” While the Law was supposed to drive people to the grace of God in Christ, we, both as individuals and in the church, love to create rules for ourselves that end up satisfying our perception of what is righteousness, but end up driving us away from the grace and glory of the Lord. At this point Chester gives some very helpful words,
If you saw a branch without grapes you would conclude it was dead. And if you saw someone who didn’t bear the fruit of holiness, you’d have good reason to suppose that he or she wasn’t a true Christian. But it’s not bearing fruit that makes us a Christian, any more than grapes make a vine alive. It’s the other way around. The vine gives life to the branch, and grapes are a sign that the branch has life from the vine. In the same way, Christ produces good works in us, and our good works are a sign that we have life in Him (51).
Chester contends, and I believe rightly so, that only two commands really matter. You can probably guess what they are: love God and love others. Those two commandments, according to none other than Jesus Himself, summed up the Law and the Prophets. Everything else flows out of that.
Another particularly insightful aspect of the book deals with the doctrine of sanctification. Chester argues against dividing it from justification, as both are driven by our union with Christ by faith. “We are justified because we’re united to Christ, the Righteous One. But union with Christ also brings with it a change of life” (56). I found his emphasis of sanctification by faith to be extremely enlightening, especially in light of Jesus’ command to “Believe in the one [the Father] has sent” (John 6:28-29).
Sanctification, as modern theologians have defined it, is more transformation than God positionally setting us apart to be holy. It is “the progressive narrowing of the gap between confessional faith and functioning faith” (75). The author asserts that, while Christians don’t think of themselves as unbelievers, that’s exactly what we are when we sin because we are engaging, not in confessional denial, but in “functional or practical disbelief (75).
The remedy for this situation we find ourselves in on a daily basis is the same remedy we, as Christians, have found for eternity – Jesus Christ. One of the subpoints of a chapter is titled “God Is Good — So We Do Not Have to Look Elsewhere,” and that really sums what we must believe all of the time, especially when confronted with sin. There is nothing apart from God that satisfies and so we must look to Jesus or be left empty. The things we desire in life are not our problem, but the fact that we desire those things more than we desire God. We must realize that Jesus is better! Only then does true change happen – when we really believe that, and thus live it.
“We repent through faith,” writes Chester. “We turn back to the worship of God when we believe that God is better than our idols” (112). We in the church often tend to separate faith and repentance. We view faith as relying God on to save us and repentance as our part in turning from sin, but that is misguided and Chester agrees. “Turning to God in faith and turning from sin in repentance are the same movement. . . . When we trust God, we’re affirming that he’s bigger and better than our sinful desires. Repentance is in itself an act of faith” (113).
Chester calls the reader to tremble at God’s word in faith and let nothing get in the way of change. He calls the reader to put believing in God above our his own reputation, and not let sin grow like mold in the dark. We must confess it. Chester strongly encourages a partner in your change project. We must believe God enough to adopt the New Testament attitude toward repentance. Namely, we must get violent with sin (126).
You Can Change beat me up spiritually. It cuts to the heart of the matter with regards to personal sin and challenges the reader to take a deep look at himself, then change by faith in Christ. It all comes back to faith in Jesus Christ, faith that He is not only good, but that He is BETTER! Better than the fleeting pleasures of sin. Better than that feeling of enjoyment that is short-lived when he disobey God’s revealed will. Jesus is better. I am already reaping the benefits of this book spiritually and pray that I will stay this course with regard to personal sin.
It would be shortsighted of me to neglect pointing out that the book presents a deep challenge for the church as well. We might read Paul’s exhortation to the church in Ephesians 4 and think that our church will never be like that, but the fact of the matter is God has called us to be that. You can change. We can change. It’s what we’re supposed to do by faith in Christ through the grace of God.
As a pastor I will seriously consider using this book in discipleship situations within the body, and with the church at large. Without a doubt I can tell you that my preaching will be impacted by how my own thinking, and hopefully thoughts and actions as well, have been challenged.
Pick up a copy and read it as soon as you can. I pray you, too, might be saying to yourself when confronted with sin, “Jesus is better… Jesus is better… Jesus is better!” Highest recommendation.