Transformation or Conformity
Transformation or Conformity
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome exhorting them to “…not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). Paul compares two terms: conformity and transformation. A literal interpretation of this passage would be that we should avoid being conformed to the world system of evil and be transformed by the inner working of God as an outcome of a renewed mind.
There is a vast difference between transformation that only the Spirit brings about and an attempt to conform our behavior to the truth that we may temporarily achieve by trying to control our of actions and behaviors. Transformation is a work of God in our inner man whereas, attempts to conform ourselves to the truth through our diligence, discipline, and self effort, is nothing that an unbeliever might do if he would set his mind to doing it. This is not to decry the efforts of spiritual discipline, but only a call back to the reality that “…God is at work…” in the heart of the believer “… both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
This passage raises several critical questions. First, what is conformity in relation to transformation? What are the implications of this passage for the believer who desires to be transformed into the likeness of Christ? Can a believer’s pursuit of transformation become an act of conformity?
First, it is easy to see that this passage is a warning for the believer to avoid being shaped into the likeness of the world. Avoidance of conformity is a given. However, conformity is not limited to blatant forms of evil, but also pertains to a subtle form of conformity that has permeated the church. This subtle form of conformity is disguised with the illusion of being good and spiritual when, in fact, it is not. For now we will refer to this attempt to conform ourselves as performance-based spirituality.
Transformation vs Conformity
Before we look at this subtle deception, we will first describe what transformation is and what it should look like in the believer’s life. Too often transformation is understood as an outcome of a person’s self-discipline, strong determination, ardent obedience and avoidance of sin. This is also the viewpoint of every other religion in the world. This perspective is based upon the process of “stop doing one thing and start doing another.” The one who sins the least is often deemed to be the more spiritual. This was the same practice followed by those under the Law in the Old Testament. As noble as this approach may appear, it is not what the Bible teaches in relation to transformation.
Genuine transformation is not something that we accomplish by anything that we do. True transformation is solely a work of God brought about by Him renewing our minds with truth. As the Apostle Paul declared, “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Rom. 12:2). This renewal goes far beyond just merely memorizing Bible verses. The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day had Bible knowledge, but were not transformed by it. Bible study may increase our knowledge of the Word, but knowledge alone will not transform us. The mind renewal described here results in transformation.
The evidence of genuine transformation is the effortless expression of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. No one can, by their own effort, produce the fruit of the Spirit. Any “fruit” that is the outcome of our own effort is not good fruit. The “fruit” of performance-based spirituality is the vain attempt to be transformed into the likeness of Christ by acting like or mimicking the Lord’s behavior while He was here on this earth. If we are having to try to be like Jesus, we need to ask ourselves, “Where is the fruit?” Genuine fruit is not performed; it is an outcome. We are expected to “bear fruit” (Col. 1:9-10) and not “do the fruit.”
The fruit of the Spirit is not a “To-Do” list.
The fruit of the Spirit is viewed by many believers as behavioral goals to be achieved or a “to-do” list to perform. The problem is, God’s fruit is His fruit and not produced by anyone other than Himself. Performance-based spirituality is the product of our own efforts and abilities, therefore not from God or the result of faith. Our best performance “…falls short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Therefore “…whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
If we are not spontaneously experiencing the fruit of the Spirit, we need to ask, “Why not?” The fruit of the Spirit should be a spontaneous expression of knowing the truth in our hearts. Our attempt to “do what Jesus would do” is not the fruit that comes from the Spirit. These are, in fact, the “…deeds of the flesh…” (Gal. 5:19-21). Deeds of the flesh are not limited to blatant evil or wanton debauchery, but include anything that is produced through our own efforts, apart from the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ.
Genuine “good works” ( are the outcome of the indwelling Christ. The Apostle Paul made it clear that our walk is one of faith and not of performance where he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” Since we are dead we cannot live on our own. The Spirit of Christ indwells every true believer. This same Spirit desires that we become a vessel through which He can express Himself. We are expected to bear the fruit as an outcome of the truth that we hold in our hearts. You will discover that only heart belief produces the fruit. Intellectual belief can make us smarter, but it will not produce the fruit. Heart belief is the essence of faith and it is faith in which we walk. Good works are not produced by trying hard to produce them. Good works are the fruit that the Spirit provides. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)
In the Colossian’s passage mentioned above it says to first, “…be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, SO THAT you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.There is an order to things.” Notice the order of things. Bearing fruit is an outcome of what God must do first. If we attempt to do the latter before receiving God’s provision we will at best “look like” the fruit, but we will not bear it.
Good Fruit and Bad Fruit
There is either good fruit or bad fruit. Good fruit is produced by His spirit. Bad fruit is anything that comes from our fleshly attempts to “do the fruit” even when the outcome appears to be good. Again, the apostle Paul made it clear when he said, “…it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God…” (Gal. 2:20). Without a doubt, we can do “good” things and benefit others around us, but unbelievers can do the same. Good deeds are not necessarily Spirit fruit, even when they appear to be good or are in fact, beneficial.
Important Question: “Why am I doing what I am doing?”
An important question to ask ourselves when we are doing the “good” things we do is, “Why are we doing what we are doing?” It is important that we are honest in our answer to this question. Probably the first thing that comes to your mind will be the “spiritual” answer. “I am doing it for God!” “I do this because I love Jesus.” “I want to help people, etc.” If we will lay aside the first answers that come to mind and allow ourselves to feel what we feel that is driving our behavior of good works, we may be surprised to find some subtle anxiety, fear, shame, loneliness, rejection, etc. hiding over in the shadows. Too often we do what we do as an attempt to make our bad feelings go away. Bad fruit, that may indeed look like good fruit, is motivated by self-serving reasons –to be affirmed, appreciated, applauded, loved by those being benefited. Spirit fruit flows from a pure heart that is focused upon God, who is the granter of the fruit.
Self-control or Controlled Behavior
This is where the subtle form of conformity comes into play. Whenever we attempt to behave or adjust our behavior, per the truth, we are attempting to conform ourselves to it. Doing this is the essence of performance-based spirituality. God does not expect us to conform our behavior to the truth, but rather He desires that we be transformed by the truth. There is a vast difference between being transformed by the truth and trying to control our behavior and conform ourselves to it. Conformity is the effort of trying to mold ourselves around a truth and to act in the way we believe the truth demands of us. This is the same as trying to keep the Law, in which all of us utterly fail. Conversely, transformation is an inner work of the Spirit, revealing the truth of who and what we already are in Christ, resulting in the outflow of the fruit of His Spirit. When we know this truth in our hearts, we will transform accordingly. Transformation brings about the effortless expression of Christ in us through the manifestation of the fruit of His Spirit.
Some people have confused self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit, with controlled behavior (Gal. 5:23) which is an outcome of self effort. Self-control is what the Spirit brings about through transformation, whereas controlled behavior is what any person can do if they set their mind to doing it. They may not be able to maintain the control for too long, but whatever they accomplish is self-accomplished. One person may be able to control some behavior for a long extended period of time while another person can only maintain for a few moments. Nevertheless, both are accomplishing the same thing. The only difference is the duration of maintaining. Self-control that the Spirit gives does not require any effort to maintain since it is a fruit. Controlling behavior is not fruit, but rather an outcome of duration and maintenance. Self-control is not us controlling ourselves, but rather our being controlled by His Spirit. There is a big difference between the two.
By choosing to submit to God’s handiwork and moving into a position to receive what He has for us, transformation is an inward change that requires no effort on our part to maintain. Transformation is a work of God not an outcome of self achievement. The Spirit is the one who leads us into all truth (John 16:13) and therefore, He is the Grantor of His truth that brings about transformation. We are capable of knowing the truth intellectually by applying ourselves to study and meditation of the written word of God. This anyone can do if they set their mind to doing it. However, God desires that we move beyond the intellectual accumulation of truth and come into the “…knowledge of the truth…” in the heart and to “…know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:19)
The Lord desires that we not only be saved, but that we come into this fullness of the truth. The Scriptures declare this where it says, “…[God] desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:4). This “knowledge” goes far beyond intellectual assent. The Greek word translated “knowledge” is epígnōsis which means a knowledge that was gained by way of a first-hand experience or relationship. When we encounter Christ through the Spirit and He grants us His truth, we will immediately, spontaneously, and experientially know this truth with our heart and be transformed by it.
What About Obedience?
Someone will surely ask, “But what about obedience?” Are we to just wait until God decides to transform us by His truth before we do anything? Not at all. The Word of God is clear when it comes to obeying the truth. However, we need to ask ourselves a very important question, “Why am I having difficulty obeying the truth? Why do I struggle so?” If I believe the Bible is true and what it expects of me is the perfect option for life, and that doing it will bring eternal benefit, then why would I have any struggle doing it. Some will suggest that we struggle because of our flesh. However, what makes up the flesh needs to be defined. Another article is needed to unpack the meaning of flesh, but suffice to say, that portion of our “flesh” that makes up our lie-based belief is a primary hindrance to our obedience.
I believe that lie-based heart belief is the primary obstacle that causes our obedience to become a struggle. Since there are other places where I discuss the difference between what we believe intellectually and what we believe with our hearts, I will just touch on this briefly here. We can fill our minds with the truth and believe it intellectually, but intellectual belief will not transform us nor will it result in a spontaneous expression of the Spirit’s fruit.
Heart belief is what motivates all that we do. Heart belief can only be accomplished as an outcome of an inner work of God. Only He can speak the truth to our hearts and persuade us of its validity. When He persuades us of the truth we will believe it. We do not believe it simply because we choose to believe. We only believe it because He has persuaded us of it.
The outcome of obedience should be the “bearing of good fruit,” that is, deeds that express the very nature and character of God. Good deeds should be motivated from a heart that knows the truth and never driven by any lie-based emotion. However, here is where we may encounter a struggle.
Where we struggle to obey the truth we will discover that the truth we are trying to obey is opposed to what we already believe. We are actually fighting against our own heart belief when we try to obey the truth that we know with our intellect. I can believe a Bible truth with my mind and struggle to keep it because it is contrary to what I believe in my heart. When I believe a lie with my heart while believing the truth with my intellect I will struggle. This is a state of double-mindedness. This is why James the Apostle calls us to “purify your hearts you double-minded…” (James 4:8) Obedience is truly impossible as long as I am double-minded, but it is a natural outcome of knowing the truth in my heart. When I know the truth with absolute certainty in my heart, the out come will always be “good fruit” or obedience. Heart belief transforms us. When we are transformed by the truth, obedience is a natural and effortless outcome. However, if we believe something contrary to the truth in our hearts, conformity to the truth we know intellectually is our only option and this conformity is laborious, wearisome and will eventually fail.
When I was raising my children I wanted them to obey me. As long as what I was asking of them was consistent with what they believed, we never had any issue. Their obedience was easy and effortless. For example if I were to say to them, “Who wants to go to the ice cream shop and get ice cream?” They would all quickly and effortless comply. So when I gave them the command, “Go get in the car!” All would obey with great joy. Obedience is easy when the truth we are attempting to obey is the truth of our heart.
However, if the truth we are attempting to obey runs contrary to the belief we hold in our hearts, to obey is to wrestle against our own belief. If I said to my children, “It is bedtime. Go brush your teeth and get in your beds,” resistance, struggle and even blatant defiance may ensue.
The Proper Glasses
So what do we do with the many Bible verses that teach obedience? I would suggest several things. First, make sure that you have on the proper glasses when you read the Scriptures. The lens you look through will determine how they are interpreted. For example, the Old Testament offers this direction for parents who have a child that continually disobeys when it says, “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town… Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death…” Deut. 21:18-21)
I am sure that this would be a great deterrent for the other siblings considering disobedience, but not something that I am willing to practice. The good news is, we are no longer under the Law of the Old Covenant. When we read the truths of the Bible we must be sure that we are looking through the lens of the cross as we seek to observe “Perfect Law” that brings freedom. The new law is our abiding in Christ and bearing His fruit. James says, “whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (Jam. 1:25)
The Scriptures describe our new relationship we have with the Law where it says “…there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus [the new law] has set you free from the law of sin and of death [the old law]. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” (Rom. 8:1-4)
The former Law never brought anyone freedom, but only placed us under a yoke that we could not bear. Obedience to the law was impossible. In the same fashion, keeping the “commandments” of the New Testament are no easier to obey that the former order. True obedience is only accomplished as an outcome of a purified faith/heart belief that is brought about by God’s Spirit in us. We are not called to keep the Law, but rather to be transformed by the truth and thereby, to be “loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, faithful and self-controlled as an outcome of the indwelling Christ.
Notice what the Apostle Paul says is the source for obedience where he said, “…through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake.” (Rom. 1:5) Obedience is an outcome of faith and this faith is what we believe with absolute certainty in our hearts. This faith is not something that we mustered up ourselves, but an outcome of God’s persuasion of the truth.
John reveals that obedience is intricately interrelated to love where he says, “…this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” (2 Jo. 1:6) The Apostle Paul sheds even more light on this where he says, “… in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything (obeying the Law), but faith working through love. (Gal. 5:6)
As we avoid being conformed to this world’s evil system, we must become aware of the subtle deception of performance-based spirituality which is a demonically-inspired counterfeit of God’s inner work. God transforms, while Satan promotes conformity. Satan knows that if we try to become like Jesus” through performance and conformity, failure is imminent. Our efforts to conform ourselves to the truth will not produce the fruit that God desires for us to possess. Conforming ourselves to the truth is not a work of God, but rather a vain attempt at doing that which only God can do. The fruit of His Spirit is not a “to-do” list to accomplish, but rather an expected outcome of the Spirit granting us His truth.
May the “…God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, …give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know Him…” (Eph. 1:17-18).