How do people really change? Positive reinforcement? A good psychologist or therapist? New Years resolutions? Positive thinking? Reach for the stars? In the first chapter of his book, J. Gary Millar—Principal of Queensland Theological College—writes, “Personal change (or transformation) involves decisively altered behavior, consistently modified thinking, choices and decisions and permanently reshaped character” (4).
So how do we do this? For many, the answer isn’t so easy. As Millar notes, according to Baylor professor and psychologist Jeffrey Kottler in his introduction to the science of change, “The truth is that as much as we might think we understand about what helps people to improve their lives, we have barely scratched the surface” (3).
People don’t always know they need to change nor do they always want to change. Do we have enough willpower? Are our goals unrealistic? Do we believe such a change and all the work is actually advantageous? Do we receive enough support from others? How do we even manage the process—the time, the effort, the thought behind it all? (6–7).
This is how it is for all humans, but Millar takes us further: the gospel of Jesus Christ “both promises and demands change” (8). Millar’s purpose here is to show that contemporary psychology cannot provide the needed answers, yet evangelical theology has often been at its weakest at this very point.
Some have expected too much (the holiness movement) and others too little (many “Bible-believing, gospel-centered people,” p. 12). Millar points out that Peter, John, and the writer of Hebrews tell us that we have already been changed. Then Paul and these very same authors also tell us we will be changed.
Chapter two looks at the biblical view of who we are (anthropology), and shows how we are unified persons, (w)holistic beings—body and soul—who should also be deeply embedded in society.
Chapter three looks at key OT figures who played pivotal parts in the OT story, yet whose lives portrayed not only large failures but often ended on sour notes. Millar briefly examines figures who converted to following Yahweh (Rahab, Ruth, and Naaman the Syrian) and those who repented from their evil (Ahab, Manasseh, and Nebuchadnezzar), yet true moral change (such as sanctification) is hardly mentioned at all. We see that the preaching of both Moses and the prophets results in little to no effect in the life of Israel as a nation.
However, the OT does promise change. The Pentateuch, the prophets, and the psalms and wisdom books promise future change. But from where?
Chapters four through six look at the difference Jesus makes. Chapter four looks at the Gospels and Jesus himself and the change brought under the new covenant. Jesus fulfills the law, which has “enduring importance… for those who welcome his kingdom” (127). So in line with texts like Jeremiah 31, Jesus’ “mission is to bring about change in the lives of those who welcome him, which will enable them to live the beautiful life anticipated in Torah“ (127–128). The stories in the Gospels show us personal transformation. The work of the new covenant makes personal change a spiritual reality (129). The stories we read in Luke and Acts are not just of conversion but if actual personal change.
Millar helpfully draws out how Jesus brings change to our lives, and what it is that is different from life under the old covenant. He surveys Paul’s writings and his understanding of how the gospel impacts our lives. He lists ten discernible aspects of change in Paul’s letter—abounding in love, bearing fruit through struggling with persisting sin, learning to discern God’s will, displaying that God’s work is moving towards its completion—before moving on to Peter, James, Hebrews, and John’s letters. Ww don’t follow a bunch of “rules.” We get to share in the very life of God and show how our joy-filled lives conform to God’s life-saving truth.
Chapter five surveys perspectives from Christian theologians and pastors of the past to fill in this study with the riches of historical theology. They are divided into three broads groups:
- Inner life—pursuing change through developing their personalities, which includes one’s desires, habits, and affections;
- Christology—this looks more at our union with Christ as our source of transformation through the means of God’s word (Calvin);
- Piety—as we gaze at Christ’s beauty we will kill off sin, and we kill sin to gaze more at Christ’s beauty (Owen). In some circles we replace our idols with Christ (CCEF).
Chapter six shows how transformation is a New Testament (or new covenant) reality. It is God who transforms us through the gospel and our knowledge of him in Christ through the Spirit, by enabling us to respond in repentance and faith. He changes us personally and corporately as we persevere in faith. As Millar writes, “The way to be transformed, then, is to meditate on the word, respond to it in repentance and faith, and to keep going to the end” (242).
By and large, yes. Millar displays in his book how biblical change is complex, but it is possible. It is God’s trinitarian work which flows from our union with Christ and is driven by the word of God, not to transmit information but for the purpose of “Christ-shaped, Spirit-empowered, word-driven transformation” (219). Millar moves from the meat of biblical exegesis to the daily grit of personal change, why it is necessary, and why we should care. Though I disagree with how he understands and puts together the covenants, Christians of all stripes will be able to agree with Millar’s emphasis on personal transformation as God’s work.
- Series: New Studies in Biblical Theology
- Author: J. Gary Millar
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: IVP Academic (June 29, 2021)
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Disclosure: I received this book free from IVP Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.