When Sanctuary began almost 10 years ago, our goal (like most missional communities) wasn’t so much to build a church, but to build a great city starting from where we were at. How does one go about that? It begins with ourselves, with our marriages, with our families, our friends, the neighborhood we live in, etc. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. But how exactly does this change happen with ourselves?
And so began the years of spreading a “virus” which we call the “Gospel” into the “matrix” of this city. This virus transforms you and me from the inside out, rather than trying to change you from the outside in by will power and moral reformation. The importance of this truth cannot be overstated, and it is a truth that we as a community have been spreading from one relationship to another.
Richard Lovelace does a great job of explaining the difference between a “gospel virus” and a “moral virus” by using the example of bent iron. He says that there are two ways to straighten a bent rod of iron. One way, through purely external power and force, is to bend the iron rod until it’s straight again. But the truth of iron is that if you succeed in bending the iron back, instead of being as strong or stronger, it is actually weaker where you bent it. Even if it looks visually straight, it will be prone to break if it is bent again in the same area. The fibers of the iron are broken inside and by this physical exertion it is now unstable and susceptible to snapping in two. But if you put this iron in fire until it glows from the inside, in that fire as the fibers are transformed from the inside, you can shape and transform the iron and make it straighter than ever and stronger than ever. It becomes tempered because of the fire and is able to withstand even the physical forces that attempt to bend it and make it crooked.
This is the difference between Gospel transformation and moral reformation. It is true that through sheer will power and moral exertion you can change yourself. If someone has bent you (through abuse, trauma, etc.), you can will yourself to bend back so that you appear to be straight and strong. Spiritual disciplines, behavior modification, accountability groups and other ways of changing help bend you back by influence and outside force.
Or, through the Gospel, you can see your heart plunged into the fire of the One who made you and calls you to Himself. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of the One who made you and is infinitely more powerful than you are. Moreover, this same God procured FOR you cosmic favor, total acceptance, beauty and loveliness. Because it was procured through merits of his own Son, and not ours, we call it GRACE.
By this gospel of GRACE, as the Spirit causes it to heat your heart, you will glow from the inside and there will be a fire that will soften you and sweeten you. When you have that kind of understanding and experience of the Gospel, you’ll be malleable and pliable so that you’ll be changed, not by His rough outward force, or your harsh guilt, but by the gentle hands of the Master Blacksmith. This will cause your life to be incredibly strong and tempered so that it you’ll be able to resist the attempts of other forces that wish to bend you and weaken you.
You will be organically changed because Gospel transformation is the complete opposite of moral reformation. C.S. Lewis said this in his book Mere Christianity, in the chapter titled “Nice People or New Men?” In it he writes:
“In a world of nice people, looking no further than that, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as the miserable world and more difficult to save, for MERE IMPROVEMENT IS NOT REDEMPTION, though in the end redemption will improve you to a degree that you can’t even imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons, not simply to produce BETTER kinds of the old creature, but to produce a NEW kind of person. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better, but more like turning a horse into a winged creature which is a whole new kind of being altogether.”
It’s hard to add to that. Gospel transformation is much different than moral reformation. It operates on the principle of freedom rather than a form of bondage. When the Gospel comes into your life and you learn the Gospel and begin to understand the Gospel, it becomes real to you and it makes you a more loving person, a more gracious person, more tolerant and courageous, more honest and more faithful. It changes you and makes you a person that looks more and more like Christ.