I Want to Change, but How?

Every counseling effort, at some level, and in some way aims at producing or accomplishing change in the life of the counselee. The question that Christians must ask is not simply if or how change was accomplished, but whether or not it proves to be true, lasting, biblical change. 

One of the common critiques of secular forms of counseling therapy is that the definition of change is found in what amounts to behavior modification. The smoker stops smoking. The adulterer stops fornicating. The thief stops stealing. In this, success is declared. But, the Bible defines success for change, or life transformation in much more dynamic terms. 

Ephesians 4:17-25 provides for us a paradigm in which we can understand what is involved if change is to be biblical. In verses 17-19, Paul explains to his audience the condition of the Gentile, that is, the unbeliever. He explains briefly, yet succinctly, how the unbeliever is both ignorant, and calloused to the life of God. What’s more, the unbeliever is given to unrighteousness, and desires what is sinful with increasing intensity. He exhorts his audience to not “walk,” that is, think and act in this manner. 

In the second portion of this passage, verses 20-25, Paul gives his Spirit-inspired grid for understanding and implementing Gospel-driven change. Four words serve as the hinge: put off (v.22) and put on (v.24). Keeping a biblical view of repentance in mind, Paul calls his readers to a genuine, two-part process of change. Jay Adams writes concerning why Paul gives a two-part, put off and put on process, “Putting off will not be permanent without putting on. Putting on is hypocritical as well as temporary, unless it is accompanied by putting off.”[1] 

If Paul is clear concerning what he calls his readers to put off (unrighteousness), then he is explicit as to what they are to put on, “…the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (ESV). Still, this talk of putting off and putting on can remain elusive if we do not grasp where Paul desires the roots of change to be found. 

Adams writes that, “Paul calls for genuine change; change in the person. Not merely in his actions.”[2] Here, Adams is explaining what Paul communicates when he writes about the heart and the mind throughout the passage. In reading Ephesians 4:17-25, it is hard to not hear Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:2, where he tells us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This process of change is very much a part of the believer’s life-long process of sanctification. 

For the purposes of biblical counseling, Wayne Mack writes, “For our instruction to be biblically accurate, we must not merely tell people what they should not do but also what they should do…We need to help them replace old, sinful habits with godly ones.”[3] This issue of habituation is critical if we are to successfully pursue biblical change, that is, if putting off and putting on are to be tangible in this life. 

The human capacity to form habits is illustrative of why repentance is so important. Repentance requires an acknowledgement, confession, and a final turning away from all sin as sinful, followed by a turning to Christ. Without this, there will be no putting off of sin, and if there is no putting off of sin, there will never be a putting on of the righteousness of Christ. All of this, Paul would advise us, begins in the heart of man as a regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 2:12-13). 

Finally, Adams writes that, “When Christ said, ‘take up your cross daily and follow me’…He represented the Christian life as a daily struggle to change.” As we pursue the instructions of Paul in Ephesians 4, and seek to make them our own, let us remember the words of Thomas Watson, who said, “Until sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”

In what areas are you struggling with sinful patterns and habits? How are these areas indicative of a refusal or failure to put off/put on?

[1] Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual, Kindle 2681
[2] Ibid, Kindle 2656
[3] Wayne Mack, Counseling, 170