Behavior Modification

One of the hardest aspects of pastoring is riding with the Lord’s people (including ourselves) through our tumultuous struggle toward spiritual maturity. Any experienced minister knows the frustration of seeking to direct a disciple or a group toward loyalty to the Lord, only to watch helplessly as they flame out and crash. I think this is why so many of us subtly (or not) shift the foundation of our preaching from who Christ is and what he did, to who we are and what we must do. We change our emphasis from the gospel to character development out of frustration with the “slow growth” we seem to see. To do this we apply “less grace” in an attempt to elicit more obvious compliance. But bare compliance is not discipleship. Pastoral work degenerates into behavior modification. This is a huge mistake. Grace is what actually transforms character in a real Christian. And the real Christians are, after all, the ones the Lord charged us to nourish (Jn.21:15-18; Acts 20:28). Forcing goats to obey rules does not turn them into sheep. This is not to say that pastors should never be direct and forthright to the Lord’s people on moral issues. But the pastor’s theology must be clear on how spiritual formation actually takes place.

The fact is that simple character development (learning how to act better) is not necessarily the same thing as Christian Spiritual transformation. Oddly, it may be the opposite of growth of faith in Christ, the very antithesis of Spiritual development. It may be growth of faith in the Self animated by religious zeal and personal discipline. This is Pharisaism. The key element in this sort of change is human rather than divine, sourced in our effort rather than God’s lordship and grace. But the transformative dynamic in the kingdom of God is grace, supplied and applied by God in Christ through the Spirit—not the un-aided natural energy and will of the practitioner. (Phil.2:12-13; 1 Cor.15:10)

Saul of Tarsus was an outstandingly good man before Christ converted him on the Damascus Road. Many a pastor would love to have had a guy like this on our staff or board. It’s hard to imagine a more passionate, upright, moral, theologically straight (biblical?) “spiritual leader” than Saul. He was by his own admission growing past his contemporaries in religious zeal, traditional achievement, and theological enthusiasm (Gal.1:14). Yet, when Christ converted him his life took on an entirely new sort of goodness (Phil.3:2-11). He did not lose any of his moral integrity, but he changed dramatically in ways that sheer moral rectitude cannot produce. The source of his goodness (righteousness) shifted from his own strength to the grace of Christ. The upshot was that he became kind and loving.

Christian (Spiritual) transformation is a change that God the Spirit produces from the inside out by bringing about radical and repentant faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. He transforms people not through simple self-discipline, but through a change of relationship with God by grace. The moral characteristics of integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, and so forth may be quite evident. But the formation of the spirit of the disciple will be because they actually believe they are sinners that are forgiven by the Lord of the universe, to whom they have given their lives and loyalty. Christian Spiritual Formation has a root system in Christ’s personal grace, radical forgiveness conferred upon a true sinner. It grows out of relief, not threat. Reconciliation and regeneration have been achieved, but not by us (2 Cor.5:11-21; Eph.2:1-10; Col.1:21-23).

So, how can we pastors help our flocks grow in grace and faith in Christ rather than just succumbing to behavior modification? Two suggestions: First we can be careful to preach the miracle of who Christ is and not morality alone as our primary message. Bryan Chapell, for many years the president and professor of practical theology at Covenant Theological Seminary, warns against what he calls the “Deadly Be’s”: By this he means sermons that are aimed at moral transformation by telling people to “be like” this Bible character, “be good” according to this passage, or “be disciplined” so that blessing will come to you. Without meaning to, these messages all put the emphasis primarily on human behavior, sometimes completely ignoring the actual gospel—that Christ’s righteousness (not ours) is the basis of our relationship with the Father. Our sermons must begin and end with Christ, inserting the true biblical mandates for our life of faith between the lines of grace that the Lord has laid down.

Second, we can remember that a very common way to experience spiritual growth in grace (perhaps the most common way) is through brokenness and failure followed by healing and forgiveness. Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle by utterly failing and being restored. Peter had a similar experience (Jn.21). True Christians usually “fail forward” so to speak. Reach always exceeds grasp in the spirit-filled life. Most believers live with a painful consciousness of their own unworthiness (Rom.7). Our joyful job as proclaimers of the gospel is to apply the truth of radical grace like antibiotic to the wounds of life in this age. A Christian’s peace of mind is not due to denial or the perception that they have become perfect, but rather to the deep conviction that they are always forgiven, reconciled, loved, declared righteous and embraced by God Himself in Christ, even when the Lord disciplines them (Heb.12).

We pastors have our work cut out for us and it is the most important work on earth. The Lord uses the gospel to save people (Rom.1:16-17), but He continues to use the gospel, from our pulpits, as the nourishment for continued growth in grace.

Just a Thought,

Pastor Rick