Do you believe that people can change? There are times over the years when I have heard people excusing bad or selfish behaviors which can be destructive or even violent. These behaviors damage or destroy healthy relationships, but we excuse them, either in others or in ourselves, by saying that is just who we are. The implication is that we are who we are and nothing can change that.
But it that true? Is it possible for people to change?
In last week’s sermon we began journeying through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul opens his letter by pointing to the gospel as the good news that ‘Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live’ (v4). Paul wanted his readers, including us, to trust that the gospel of Jesus sets people free. Adding any conditions or expectations to the gospel changes it and it stops being good news . For the gospel to set us free it needs to be grace that is given freely with no strings attached and no hidden conditions.
In the second half of the first chapter, Paul goes on to illustrate the change that happens in people’s lives when we find freedom in the good news of Jesus. The gospel changes people’s lives. To show how this happens, Paul uses his own life as an example. He writes,
You know what I was like when I followed the Jewish religion — how I violently persecuted God’s church. I did my best to destroy it. I was far ahead of my fellow Jews in my zeal for the traditions of my ancestors. (vv 13,14 NLT)
As Saul, he was so passionate about following the law God gave through Moses that he arrested, persecuted, and even killed people who were living out the freedom the encountered through faith in Jesus. But then something happened to change Saul’s life. He met the crucified and risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. We can read his story in Acts 9. After spending 3 years re-learning what it meant to be faithful to God through the person of Jesus, Paul went to consult with the Christian leaders, and then began to proclaim the good news of Jesus. The new Paul dedicated himself to communicate the gospel of freedom in Christ to others. The result of this new life he was living, Paul says, was that people praised God because of him (v24).
The promise we can hear in Paul’s story is that the good news of Jesus changes lives. Meeting Jesus changed Paul from being someone who was ‘uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers’ (Acts 9:1) to someone who dedicated his life to preach forgiveness, peace, hope and love through the gospel of Jesus. If God can change Paul’s life so dramatically through the gospel, do we believe he can also change us?
Over the years I have seen the changes God can work in people’s lives through the gospel by the power of his Spirit. I have seen people who have been trapped in guilt, darkness and self-hatred find freedom through the gospel of Jesus. The good news of God’s grace in Jesus was able to give them a sense of healing, wholeness, value and hope in their lives. The story of Paul and people I have known tell me that God works through the good news of Jesus by the power of his Spirit to liberate people so they can find healing, hope, joy and love in their lives. If he can do this for Paul, if he can do this for others I have met, he can do the same for you.
The result is that, like those who witnessed the change in Paul, when people see the changes in us that the gospel of freedom brings, then they will praise God because of us. As our lives reflect the goodness of God, and as the fruit of God’s Holy Spirit is made real in our relationships with others, then people will thank God for the way God is continuing to work in and through us. As we live in his freedom to love and serve the people around us in faith, then, as Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, we will be able to ‘let (our) good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise (our) heavenly Father’ (Matthew 5:16 NLT).
I need to say at this point, though, that this is not about looking at others and expecting them to change. That places people under the law of expectations and will not bring about the change that comes through the freedom of the gospel. Instead, we might need to begin by looking at our own lives, and thanking God for the changes he has worked or is working in us. Or, if you are anything like me, we might see the things in us that we need God to change by the power of the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Jesus. Growth is gradual. We are all works in progress. The key is not to try harder, but to go back to the gospel Paul talked about at the start of this letter and living in the freedom that it brings.
Timothy Keller writes in his commentary, ‘Grace is the free, unmerited favor of God, working powerfully on the mind and heart to change lives. There is no clearer example than Paul that salvation is by grace alone’ (Galatians for You, p28). Is it possible for people to change? Paul’s story says yes, by the grace of God. The stories of people I have known through the years and my own story say yes, by the grace of God. Can your life change, or the lives of the people you love? When we encounter true freedom in the good news of Jesus, crucified and risen for us, I believe they can.