“Why can’t I change?” This plaintive question occurs to many Christians, despairing over remnants of sinfulness in their lives. Long after conversion, when they thought they would be free from this, sinful inclinations persist.
Such questions don’t come from arrogant pretensions to perfection, but from earnest longings to please the God who so marvelously has forgiven and given new life in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
The questioners aren’t only novice believers who haven’t yet learned endurance in the pilgrimage to Christlikeness. They are those whose long walk with Christ is marred by setbacks and eroded by divided loyalties. Sins long ago confessed and renounced, temptations earnestly avoided, nonetheless return.
Laments of unchanged desires or habits typically evoke proposed remedies from listeners. A series of steps or a specific technique may be recommended. “Pray more earnestly or pray with more faith and the desired freedom will be found,” they are told. Perhaps the questioners are challenged to acknowledge that their professed desires for deliverance mask deep commitments to their favorite sins.
After all, doesn’t the apostle Paul say, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17)? Have we forgotten that “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13)? Don’t we need to remind ourselves that if we live by the Spirit, we will not fulfill the desires of the flesh (Gal. 5:16, NRSV)? Don’t such promises indicate that victory over sinfulness is the intended lifestyle for believers? Not sinless perfection nor the eradication of sinfulness from us, of course, but victory over the crippling habits of sinfulness?
Stirred by such promises, it is easy to overlook other important truths. As redeemed people, we are still fallen, and part of a fallen creation. All our lives, and especially before our conversion, we develop deeply rooted patterns of choosing and acting that retain the effects of sinfulness. Moreover, from birth, this world scars us, with scrapes and bruises and cuts, both inside and out. We are wounded by the sins committed against us. Conversion does not change all of this.
Just as physical scars from abuse or accidents aren’t necessarily removed by conversion, so our emotional, psychological, “internal” scars often remain. Sometimes God immediately and dramatically heals our bodies and sometimes He does this for our emotional and psychological damage, too. Many Christians testify of deliverance from sinful habits at conversion, of greed or pride or hatred expunged from a newborn child of God, of substance abuse instantly cured. God is able to accomplish this in the life of every believer. Apparently, however, He has not chosen to do so for all believers, any more than His miraculous physical healings imply that He intends such healing for all His children.
More often, the healing which occurs in this life is limited, and comes only gradually at that. Though we want complete healing from the presence and effects of sinfulness now, only in the glorified state on the new earth will we have the fullness of redemption, both in our character and in the created order as a whole.
The great hope of precious promises of freedom and power for our lives now must be understood along with other truths of the New Testament which contrast the greatness of the future with the limitations of the present age. The glory of the eternal kingdom is its sinlessness, its freedom from the presence of impurity within and without. Precisely because we do not now enjoy such freedom, these expectations thrill us. What believers anticipate with the culmination of their renewal is not merely the “topping off” of their holiness, a small final step in their progress in Christlikeness. The full measure of the Holy Spirit’s work is much greater than the marvelous grace we have already experienced, which is only the “firstfruits of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:23), “a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Cor. 1:22). No matter how long we live nor how much progress we make in Christian growth, the renewal we yet need and hope for is many times greater than that already experienced. “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all” (Rom. 8:24).
This means that we all have more than a token presence of fleshliness in us. Even as mature Christians, we have abundant capacity for wickedness and a pervasive taint on even our best motives and accomplishments. Even then, we are acceptable to God only in Christ’s righteousness.
We are not, of course, helpless victims of sin. We cannot choose to be free from the presence of sinfulness nor can we choose to live as though we are already glorified. Yet we choose what we love and how we act and, over time, the effects are clearly seen in our character.
Accordingly, we must not “give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:27) but must “put off [our] old self” (v. 22). God is not mocked; whatever we sow, we shall reap. The private, safely guarded sins which we prize will have their fruition in the public moral failures which surprise everyone else, limited as they are to an external vision of another’s spirituality. What looks like a bolt out of the blue, a sudden departure from character, is often merely a delayed appearance of sins long present under the surface, the true character hidden under the mask of piety. The truth we have mastered only cognitively, without the heartfelt embrace of love and faithful commitment which constitutes the richest sense of biblical “knowledge,” will not prevent our falling.
Faithfulness in our walk with our triune God is possible by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. As new creatures in Christ, we may enjoy abundant growth “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18), but we are not glorified and this is not yet the new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells (Rev. 21:1–4).
Why can’t I change? Because this is not yet the end. Until then, we, along with the groaning creation, await “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). Even so come, Lord Jesus.