“God is not in the business of making good men better, but old men new.” – C.S. Lewis
Long before I had ever preached a sermon on Colossians 3:1-17, perhaps before I had even read it (I was not a habitual bible reader, or reader in general in High School) I read Book IV, chapter 10 of C.S Lewis’s Mere Christianity which is titled “Nice People or New Men.” It was there, an in the work as a whole, that I first came upon the idea that God did not send Christ to die so we could live more moral lives than we already did, which is what the Christianity of my youth had taught me, but that Christ died so that we could become completely new creations by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Lewis’s image of the Horse being completely destroyed so that we no longer called it a horse, but something completely different, a winged creature, has stuck with me all these years and it is the best metaphor for what Paul describes in Colossians 3:1-17. Hence the reason the sermon I preach wherever I go as a guest preacher uses this very analogy to describe taking off the old self and putting on the new self. Lewis calls this transformation, we are not merely better, but we are recreated, reformed, we return to our preformed state. Now we are “Born of Water and Spirit” (John 3:5) as a new creature.
This was a hard teaching for Nicodemus to understand, as Dallas Jenkins so brilliantly displays in his work “The Chosen” (which again I recommend). It is just as hard for us to understand today. It has not made its way into American Christianity because it does not agree with the basis of “Common Sense Realism” that pervaded the halls of Princeton and dictated the theology of Scottish Presbyterianism. Christianity was like any other religion, a way for us to become better humans. Yet, even in the Nineteenth Century it was not totally lost on us. My own theological, historical mentor J.W Nevin commented extensively on the New Creation, even writing an entire Treatise on it called ‘The New Creation.” Nevin writes:
“It goes to the very foundation of Christianity. Is it a doctrine only or a fact? Is it a new creation in Christ, or is it a divinely wrought image of that only out of Christ? The question is worthy of something more than a magisterial wave of the hand, after the summary fashion of the criticism here in view.”[i]
The whole point of the New Covenant is that we are reformed, something new is being created, our fundamental constitution changes (Jeremiah 31:31-34). We are not the same being we were before, now we, through the Holy Spirit, put on the New Self that comes from being born of Water and Spirit. Paul then tells us in the book of Titus to “Insist on these things” (3:7) and to avoid the weeds of foolish controversies and the sin of the old life which we were formerly enslaved to but are now free from and indeed, changed by rebirth so that we have the ability to not do those things we formerly could only do.
Modern Christianity, however, does not act in this manner. Instead, it gives us a list of expected behaviors and if you do not meet the standard criterion then you are lost. The Woe’s to the Pharisees, Jesus instructions to the people, ring in our ears, do as they say, but not as they do. We are very good at cleaning the outside of the pot, but inside the pot we are rotten to the core (Matthew 23:1-36). So much so that our rot and pharisaic tendencies have become normalized and even encouraged. We are not to “Lord it over” others, but that is precisely what we have chosen to do in almost every area of life. We are to build others up because we have been built up, but all we know how to do is infantilize and tear down one another, slander and gossip against one another. If you do not believe me, go look at the Facebook Comments on almost any post that is uncensored, or the YouTube comment section for that matter. We fight hard against becoming the new creation because recreation requires us to give up our long held hostilities and even the pain that becomes a comfort blanket for a people who have never really grown up to maturity (Eph 4:7-11).
This is what Billy Graham was referring to when he said that: “Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep.” We believe that all that is required of us is to pray a prayer and accept Jesus into our hearts, but that is not what Scripture instructs us to do. We are to “believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord and confess with our mouths that Christ raised Him from the dead” (Romans 10:13). That is what is required for us to be saved, then we receive the Holy Spirit and the work of recreation or reformation begins. The old self is burned away, and the new self is brought forth. We become a new creation in Christ and we are to put the old vein rivalries and former definitions of Love away, far away, as we embrace the new life.
Now, let me make a point about the Love of God. God does love His creation unconditionally, but when we come in contact with the love of God we should be transformed by it. It should awaken us to the reality of how terribly sinful we are, and if it doesn’t, we need to question whether it was God’s love we encountered or the devil’s false abstraction. Or we need to question why our hearts are so hard towards God that we are not changed by an encounter with Him. God’s love should make us listen to one another, especially when they come to us with a grievance against us, God’s love should make us treat one another with deep respect and dignity, God’s love should make us desire reconciliation above continuing to harm our friends and family members.
Christianity in scripture, in Jesus own words, should be an inch wide and a mile deep. Jesus is clear about the fact that the wide road leads to death, and a truncated and diminished gospel that does not include recreation or reformation by the Holy Spirit, that just makes us more “moral” is wide and thin. We have fed a lot of people sugar coated death which sounds scriptural but is based on human wisdom and definition. God’s love is unconditional, and it accepts us as we are, but scripture is clear that it never leaves us the way it found us. Jesus did not tell Nicodemus that you must become more moral, He told him to be reborn, of Water, the baptism of repentance which signs and seals on us the covenant and spirit, the reconciliation and new life, new creation, in Christ. It is foolish to think we will be saved because we become better humans without a deep personal relationship with Christ, because we went to Church on Sunday and Tithed 10 Percent every week. Those are good things, but even the Pharisee’s did them while placing unbearable burdens on the people and Jesus tells them they have a place reserved for them in Hell because of their religion devoid of relationship and transformation (Matthew 23:1-36 again).
Brothers and Sisters, we are to be transformed, not merely made better, but something completely new, unrecognizable from the old self. The Image of Christ is not a mere outward image only, it is also an inward one, one that requires us to be remade and reformed at the hands of the Potter who is our God.
Solo Dei Gloria, Amen.
[i] Nevin, John Williamson. The Incarnate Word: Selected Writings on Christology (Mercersburg Theology Study Series Book 4) (p. 34). Wipf & Stock, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel and daughter Erin in Buffalo Center Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center.