Every Christian has a story. A story of transformation. And they are gloriously varied.
Your story might be that you were raised in a nonreligious household. All the way through childhood, you never darkened the halls of a church. You chased all the things the world can offer to their very end. But in college, you had a roommate – one assigned to you at random – who shared the gospel with you and you believed.
Or your story might be that you were raised in a very religious household. Fundamentally religious. You grew up under the thumb of the law, surrounded by rules and regulations. But then, at some point, in the midst of your efforts to earn God’s approval, you were invited to a crusade or revival service in which you heard the good news of the gospel preached for the very first time.
Or your story might be that you grew up in a home in which the gospel was regularly spoken but also lived out in the way you interacted with your parents. As a young child, then, it seemed very natural for you to believe this message was true and willingly give your life to Jesus. You’ve followed Him ever since.
Varied stories, and yet there are some commonalities. In fact, you could summarize gospel transformation in three words:
Believe. Become. Behave.
This same pattern is the way Paul wrote his letters. Consistently, the apostle reminded the churches of the New Testament of the truth of the gospel. This is what they have believed, and are continuing to believe. Then he reminded them that as a result of their belief in the message of the gospel, they have become something different. They have become saints. Sons and daughters of God. It’s only after Paul has told them what they have believed, and what they have become, that he concerns himself with what they should do. Behavior flows from who we have become as a result of what we have believed. Here’s a few examples:
Ephesians 1-3 is about new life and the new society God is building through Christ. It’s not until chapter 4, verse 1, that he says, “As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received…”
Colossians 1-2 is about the greatness of Christ and what it means to live in Him. It’s not until chapter 3 that Paul says, in light of this, that we should live a certain way, setting “our hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God…”
Romans 1-11 has every bit of theology imaginable in it, from the universality of sin to the greatness of grace and faith, from predestination to the role of Israel in the end times. But it’s not until chapter 12 that he says in light of all of this mercy from God, you should “present your bodies as a living sacrifice…”
Do you see the pattern? For Paul, it seems it’s about understanding who God is, and then understanding that in Christ all things have been made new – including us. Once we believe this, we become something different. Then only after we have believed and become does he address how we behave.
We should take notice of this pattern, lest we get it mixed up. And sometimes we do in the church. We get a “believe, behave, become” model that implicitly teaches that if you behave in the right way, you can at last become something good and acceptable to God. It’s dangerous. It creates legalists who rely on their own righteousness rather than truly living by faith. It creates legalists like me.
But Paul’s theology, the “believe, become, behave” model, recognizes that we have already become something new in Christ. We are already different. That means that the behavior part is not an effort to become something different; it’s about recognizing and living out the newness that is already in us. That kind of theology is God-centered and grace-centered, and teaches us to make much of the cross, because that’s where our righteousness resonates from.