how do people change?

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

– 2 Corinthians 3:18

Most of us have tried – and failed with – a myriad of different “strategies” for Christian growth and discipleship. Be it self-discipline and willpower, community and accountability, or even simple, old-fashioned sin-despising effort, any strategy for making myself more Christ-like that focuses on me rather than on Christ is bound for failure. But, fortunately, the opposite is true, as well: Discipleship strategies that center on our understanding of Jesus are promised success.

At least, that is the beautiful promise that sits within Paul’s statement in 2 Cor 3:18. He has been contrasting the nature of life under the old and new covenants (3:1ff), calling the discipline of personal holiness under the old covenant the “ministry of death” (3:7) and the “ministry of condemnation” (3:9). If we’re honest, many of us still struggle with old covenant mindsets when it comes to godliness and discipleship – we make rules (i.e., laws), and then try incredibly hard – even praying earnestly for the help of God’s Spirit – to keep those rules, before we ultimately fail and fall short. But we are no longer under the old covenant, rather the new, and we desperately need a new covenant understanding of how God works in our lives and transforms us.

That’s what Paul is after here. In fact, he goes on to remind his readers that they should not “lose heart” because their life and ministry come by “the mercy of God” (4:1). Paul’s framework for understanding the life and growth of believers always centers on God and his mercy. This is never more apparent than in 3:18, likely the central verse of this passage: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” Notice that Paul promises personal transformation – transformation of a nature and scope that obliterates most discipleship efforts: “And we…are being transformed into the same image [the image of God before the Fall] from one degree of glory to another.” More significantly, notice how this personal transformation is accomplished – not by human striving or effort, not through well-administered small groups or accountability partners – rather by “beholding the glory of the Lord.”

Simply put, the more we see and savor and know and glimpse – though now only dimly (1 Cor 13:12) – Christ’s glory, the more we will be transformed by the Spirit (“For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit”) into Christ’s image. In some way, a deeper knowledge of who Christ is, of how intensely beautiful his glory is, reshapes us – from one degree of glory to another. Discipleship depends on Christ, not on us. And praise God for that! So let us aim not for better strategies or motivations for change. Instead, let aim for clearer understandings and images of Christ and his glory, praying that the Spirit of glory will transform us, little by little, into truer images of God in the process.

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