A Roper poll taken in 1990 revealed that the behavior of Christians after their conversion was not very different from what it was before they were born again. In fact, the survey showed that adultery, illegal drug use, and drinking actually increased slightly after their conversion. (National & International Religion Report, Oct 8, 1990. Page 8)
On the other hand, a Gallup poll taken in 1992 showed that highly spiritually committed persons had a "transforming faith." They were more tolerant of others, more inclined to perform charitable acts, more concerned about the betterment of society, and far happier. "These findings," George Gallop said, "in my view, are among the most exciting and significant that we have recorded in more than a half-century of polling." (First Things, Mar 1993)
A Doug Beyer poll taken over 35 years of ministry in and out of the church shows that some Christians are cantankerous and mean-spirited while some non-Christians are generous and good-hearted. So what difference in behavior does becoming a Christian make?
An old proverb says, "If thou hearest that a mountain has moved, believe it; but if thou hearest that a man has changed his character, do not believe it." Jeremiah makes the same lament: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to do evil" (Jeremiah 13:23). Is changing one's character as impossible as changing one's color? Many people think so.
Much depression and cynicism of our age is caused by assuming that people's basic character is unchangeable. We become depressed because we feel we are stuck with being what we are for the rest of our life, yea, and even forever after. Or we become cynical because we think others will always be as hard to live with as they are now.
If that is how you are feeling, I have news for you. Not only can you be different, you most certainly will be different. Notice, I said, different, not necessarily better. The one thing you can't do is stay the same. That's news, but not necessarily good news. The good news of the Gospel is that through the grace and power of God, you can be transformed into something more beautiful than you can now imagine (See Ephesians 4:13).
I saw a bumper sticker that said,
Although that is the truth, it is not the whole truth. Jesus said those who put themselves in his hands would become as perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Imagine that, if you can: perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty and immortality. Such perfection is begun in this life, but is not completed in this life. Death seems to be part of the treatment. Nevertheless, we have the assurance of scripture that "if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17).
If that is true, I have a question: Why aren't Christians nicer than non-Christians? The great evangelical social reformer, Walter Rauschenbusch, said, "When a man is converted, even his dog should know it!" Chuck Colson was President Nixon's cold-blooded "hatchet man" before he was converted. After he was born again, he was the only member of the white house staff who went to jail on a "guilty" plea. He even confessed to a crime he wasn't charged with. Now I don't know Chuck Colson, but I would not be surprised if he still has a sharper tongue than some well-mannered unbelievers, but that doesn't prove his conversion is counterfeit. The real test conversion is what he would be like if he weren't a Christian. . . and what the unbeliever would be like if he or she became one.
Conversion creates not niceness but newness a new creation. Niceness is nice and easy! What God is watching for, waiting for and working for in our lives is something that isn't easy. It isn't easy even for God because he can't produce it by a mere act of power. It is something we can freely give or refuse. We can turn to God and thus fulfill the purpose for which we were created. Or we can turn away from God and insist on doing things our own way. Thus, God has the incredibly complicated and difficult job of making us a new creation without destroying our free will. That is the hardest and most costly thing God has ever tried to do.
It costs God nothing, as far as we know, to create nice things: sunsets, sequoias and starry nights. But to convert rebellious wills cost God dearly the death of his Son, Jesus. And it cost God as much to save me as to save Chuck Colson.
No wonder nasty people were attracted to Jesus. Mark tells us, "Jesus was having a meal in Levi's house. A large number of tax collectors and outcasts (the nastiest people of that time) was following Jesus and many of them joined him and his disciples at the table. Some teachers of the Law, (the nicest people of that time) who were Pharisees, saw that Jesus was eating with these outcasts and tax collectors; so they asked his disciples, 'Why does he eat with such people?'
"Jesus heard them and answered, 'People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call the respectable people, but the outcasts'" (Mark 2:15-17).
Respectable people didn't come to Jesus. People who have sound nerves, good health and social status are more likely to be self-satisfied without the Savior. Nice people think their niceness is their own doing and feel no need of any better kind of goodness until their self-righteousness lets them down.
If virtue comes easy for you, my friend, beware. Remember that to whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48). If you mistake for your own merits what are actually God's gifts, you are still a rebel. And all those gifts will make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. Remember the devil was once an archangel. His natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above a chimpanzee. Nice people who trust in their niceness are in for a terrible fall.
On the other hand, when nasty people attempt to be nice, they quickly discover they need help. For them it is the grace of God or nothing. It is for them that Jesus came and died (Romans 5:6-8). If anyone is in Christ he is
We are talking about a new creation, not just new improvements to an old creation. Conversion does, in fact, improve people. It improves them here and now and, in the end, will improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine (1 John 3:2). But mere improvement is not conversion. God became a man to turn us into his sons and daughters not simply to produce better people of the old kind, but to produce a new kind of people, a new creation. Conversion is not like teaching a horse how to jump higher and higher, but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Though the horse will eventually soar over fences, it may look and act kinda strange for a while.
Scientists tell us the old creation started with a big bang. Well, let me tell you, the new creation started with an even bigger bang: an explosion of God's love that brings into being something that never existed before and will never die. Someday the old creation will pass away. Mountains will crumble into dust. But the new creation will live forever and ever. Even if the universe is ten billion years old, its lifespan is to yours like the lifespan of a gnat. God created the heavens and the earth knowing they are only temporary. He created you knowing you are eternal.
Conversion is not a new conclusion, but a new beginning, the beginning of a brand new life. God loves you enough to accept you just as you are, but he loves us too much to leave you as you are. The old has to go.
Paul said, "Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices" (Colossians 3:9). "You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts." (Ephesians 4:22).
Living without Christ is like driving a car with its front end out of line. You can stay on the road if you grip the steering wheel with both hands and hang on tight. Sooner or later, though, you will find your tires worn out or yourself in the ditch. Meanwhile, educators, political leaders, parents, husbands and wives may urge you to drive straight and curb your destructive tendencies, but it is a ceaseless struggle.
Coming to Christ is a little like getting a front-end alignment. The pull toward the ditch is corrected from the inside. That is not to say there won't be bumps and potholes ahead that will still try to jar you off the road. You dare not fall asleep at the wheel. But the old has gone. The basic skew in your moral mechanism has been repaired.
Getting rid of the old isn't easy. Paul himself struggled with it. "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me" (Romans 7:15-17). Believers may continue to exhibit unchristian character qualities even after baptism and years of church attendance, Bible reading, and other activities that are supposed to enhance spiritual growth. Although conversion may not change your intelligence level or genetic make-up or basic personality type, it does change the direction you are going in life. You turn about-face and move toward God instead of away from him. The old has gone and
On the day after your wedding were you a different person? Most of the married people in this sanctuary would say, "Yes and no." You have many of the same old habits, but you have a new identity. As the preacher said, "The two become one" (Ephesians 5:31). Likewise, those who are in Christ become his bride. They don't have a new personality but a new possibility, not a new being but a new becoming, not a new essence but a new situation. Their most significant change is their relationship with God. Those who were dead in sin are now alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5).
Conversion changes not only what you do but who you are. You are not merely conformed or informed, but transformed (Romans 12:1-2). You may not be what you ought to be, nor what you want to be, nor what you are going to be, but, thank God, you are not what you were!
You and I are Christians under construction. Like other construction sites, the ugly scaffolding is out where everybody can see it. But take hope; God isn't finished with us yet!
Too many have oozed into church membership without a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. They have their names on church rolls but not in the Lamb's book of life (Revelation 20:15).
By the grace of God, you can be different! Come to him now to have your life recycled.