And we all, with unveiled faces, 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 Cor. 3:18, ESV)
What is transformation? Within both Christian academic circles and the Self-Help community I have noted popular teachers tossing the terms “transformational” and “transformation” around regularly, yet they never seem to define what these terms mean or what they entail.
When I think of transformation, I think of the Incredible Hulk. Not only does Bruce Banner transform into what Tony Stark calls a “huge green rage monster,” but even his transformation has variations. At first, he cannot help but become the Hulk. Later in the movie Avengers: Infinity War, he cannot get Hulk to “come out and SMASH” when he needs him most. What kind of crazy transformation is this? Oh, yeah… a fictional one.
Because I am an inquisitive fellow, I started to ask the people throwing these words around, “Could you please define what you mean by transformational? And can you give me some clarity on what we are being transformed from, and also what it is we are being transformed into?“
This seemed a simple enough question to me, particularly since it was such a popular term that had gained such currency in public discourse – and yet what I found in every case was that those using the terms had a hard time or were unable to give me a straight answer as to what they meant by the word “transformational.”
I didn’t push it. (I mean one of them might have been a gamma-ray-infused scientist with an anger problem).
But, I began to search what “transformation” means in a historically biblical context. If you have ideas of your own, I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.
Transformation: a Beginning; an End; and a lot In-Between.
To the apostolic authors of the Bible, life in Christ is transformational at its core, for it has a beginning (something we are transformed from), an end (something we are transformed into), and changes that continue happening in between. Theologians call this change “sanctification,” a word we have either forgotten or misunderstood in our culture.
I probably don’t need to tell you what you have been transformed (or rescued) from, but here’s a summary: The Apostle Paul called it the “old self” (Rom 6:6, Eph 4:22-24, Col 3:9-11). This accounts for not only all our breakdown and failure, but also what we witness in the tragic evil we see in the world around us, and even at play (sometimes) in ourselves).
The Good News is that God has been orchestrating the largest rescue operation of human history. He means to save us from our old selves, otherwise, we will be lost in what novelist Walker Percy called the “suck of self” (sin) and headed to death and destruction. He raised Jesus from the dead and promises to do the same for you and me, to make us “new selves” like Christ. This is our destiny as believers in Christ. Nothing can stop it.
That’s the transformation from and the transformation into. But here is the often uncomfortable, yet thrilling In-Between, the metamorphosis from hideous caterpillar to exquisite butterfly: God is too loving to leave us with only “forensic rescue” (salvation without transformation). This is because He expects fruit from this rescue, from the indwelling work of His Holy Spirit. Our Father in heaven wishes us every happiness and would not deny us the joy of holiness and sanctification.
The goal of all this? Complete transformation. Utter Christ-likeness, which will be complete on the other side, but begins here.
Sanctification vs. Smashing.
Bruce Banner’s Hulk alter-identities seem like what the Apostle Paul describes when he writes about his battle with the “flesh.” Paul says: “For I do not understand what I am doing; for I am not practicing what I want to do, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Ro. 7:15-25). If you are up on the MCU, you have watched poor Banner at times not wanting to transition into the Hulk but becoming the Hulk nonetheless. At other times, he wants to transition into the Hulk but is unable by his efforts.
There is no such thing as “self-transcendence.” All attempts at it lead back to the “old self.”
So the analogy ends there. Banner’s transition into the Hulk has swift results: SMASHING…then crashing back to his former state. (Seriously, can you imagine Banner’s trying to get personal liability insurance? I mean, just for “collision” alone it would be a fortune! And what about waking up naked all the time in some field? Fun huh?)
Sanctification, true transformation, on the other hand, is the process of growing in Christlikeness through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. We begin to learn about this process when converted, and we grow in understanding of it as we walk with Him. It is walking with Jesus that sanctifies us – transforms us to be more and more like Jesus. And Jesus always pleased His Father.
What about you?
I’ll admit, I have often tried to avoid God’s hand in sanctifying and transforming me. I have resisted. I have gone the long way around only to find myself back at the same place.
But I can promise you that there is joy and freedom in transformation. Through this process, we come to know God better, and our gratitude toward Him grows deeper.
And unlike the Hulk, we don’t regress. We remain gloriously transformed into the image of Christ.
How is God transforming you? What questions do you have about this process of transformational sanctification?
Have a look at our opening scripture (2 Corinthians 3:18) and also Romans 12:1-2, and let’s open a discussion about what transformation is really about, okay? Please leave comments below!