I recently read an article by Tim Keller entitled: Gospel Preaching. In Appendix B: Applying Christ, he gives reasons people may say no to ungodliness before giving us the real way we can change. I would like to quote Keller at length, rather than attempting to summarize. Keller says,
The Wrong Way to Seek Change
Think of all the ways you can ‘say no’ to ungodliness. You can say “No-because I’ll look bad!” You can say “No-because I’ll be excluded from the social circles I want to belong to.” You can say “No-because then God will not give me health, wealth, and happiness.” You can say “No-because God will send me to hell.” You can say “No-because I’ll hate myself in the morning and disappoint myself and have low self-esteem.”
But virtually all of these motives are really just motives of fear and pride – the very things that also lead to sin. You are just using sinful self-centered impulses of the heart to keep you compliant to external rules without really changing the heart itself.
Also, you are not really doing anything out of love for God. You are using God to get things – self-esteem, prosperity, or social approval. So your deepest joys and hopes rest in other things beside God. This kind of ‘obedience’ does not issue from a changed heart at all.
How to Change
Paul is saying: If you want to really change and gain self-control you must let the gospel teach you – a word that means to train, discipline, coach you over a period of time. You must let the gospel argue with you. You must let the gospel sink down deeply until it changes the structures of your motivation and views of things. John Stott says on Titus 2:14: “Grace not only saves, but undertakes our training. Grace bases her teaching upon the great facts in which her first grand revelation of herself was made, and finds all her teaching power in those mighty memories!”
This Does Not Mean
This does not mean that Christians should not use every possible means to exercise self-control in the crucial moment. If you feel an impulse to pick up a rock and hit someone with it – do anything at all to keep yourself from doing it! Tell yourself “I’ll go to jail! I’ll disgrace my family!” Anything. There’s no reason why in the short run a Christian can not simply use ‘will-power’ like that to make a change that is necessary.
But in the long run change will only come from changing the heart’s deepest affections with the melting, moving grace of God.
In this article, Keller provides us with three things that are happening when we do not seek change at the heart level: (1) We will not truly change. (2) We end up using God to build our self-esteem, prosperity, or social approval because our hope lies in something other than God. (3) We end up using sinful self-centered impulses derived from fear and pride to exact external change in order to remain compliant to our social circles accepted actions, or because we believe compliance to rules will gain us favor with God; thus, meriting us health, wealth, happiness, and a ticket out of hell.
In contrast, the only way for us to really change is if our heart is affected by the Gospel. Instead of forcing ourselves to keep external rules, we need to seek change at the heart level by preaching the Gospel to ourselves and allowing the grace of God to melt away our hearts deepest affections for our own self promotion, glory, satisfaction, and pleasure.