Christians are supposed to be new creations whose lives exhibit the power of God (2 Pet 1:3ff). As new creations, we walk and live by the Spirit. Even knowing this, many of us struggle to understand what it looks like to change by the Spirit. We attend regular churches full of regular people who don’t appear very much like Spirit-indwelled new creations. What are we missing?
The answer to these questions involves understanding how we change, what the power of God means, and why sin still exists even among Christians.
How we change: distinguishing causes
We all assume that the Spirit works a miracle in us that we cannot explain and so don’t look to do so. Yet we also affirm that the Spirit works through ordinary means like baptism, the Lord’s Supper, preaching, prayer, devotions, and so on. If these ordinary means do in fact change us, then why should not associate the Spirit working through these very things to change us?
These ordinary means transform us through the ultimate agency of the Spirit who uses these means. The Spirit indwells us and teaches how to live well by such practices.
In order to do so, he changes our mind in the most literal sense (Rom 12:2). The Spirit transforms the mind or vous, which functions as the highest order of our soul. Our minds guide and direct our soul and body. Hence, the Spirit via the mind renews us from the inside out.
In particular, the Spirit grants us access to the mind of Christ: “But we have the mind (vous) of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). Through the mind, the Spirit teaches us to desire what is good, acceptable, and perfect. It teaches us to delight in the law of God with our mind (Rom 7:25).
In Paul’s anthropology, the transformed mind guides us towards love and good deeds. In this sense, our sanctification by definition returns to its natural mode of existence. We cease to live with corrupt minds and begin to live with renewed minds. We of all people learn once again how to live naturally.
Small wonder then that we struggle to discern the supernatural or direct act of the Spirit in our lives. In fact, he works by the renewal of our minds so that we can delight in the law of God. The Spirit of God causes this transformation through the secondary cause of our mind. By distinguishing these causes, we come to realize that our new mind in fact constitutes in large measure the transformative power of the Spirit in us.
What the power of God is: a way of life
The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. We confess this to be true. But what does this power look like in practice? What does God’s good work in us look like (Phil 1:6)? Paul immediately explains:
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1:9–11).
Note that the particular works Paul has in mind here include love matched with knowledge and discernment. That purpose is that through these latter two elements Christians may know what is “excellent” and produce the fruit of righteousness.
In short through the mind (knowledge and discernment), Christians can know what is good and do it. Put simply, sanctification occurs through ordinary means despite its Spiritual origin. The Spirit as ultimate cause works through our “mind” (vous) so that it becomes the agent and proximate cause of our sanctification.
Why sin still exists: the flesh
We have access to such a renewed mind because we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). Hence, we can do what is right and rejoice in it (Rom 7:25). That does not mean we will never sin because the passions exist in our flesh (Rom 7:5, 25). They fight our mind which delights in the law of God. But God will complete the work in us at the resurrection (Phil 1:6).
God could coerce our wills and cause us to be perfect. But he does not. He shed his love abroad in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5). The Spirit then creates in us a new heart that wants to delight in the good and perfect and holy law of God.
Yet the flesh battles our Spirit empowered minds: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Gal 5:17).
The two principles: Spirit (and mind) vie with the flesh. Through the Spirit indwelling us, we have the mind of Christ with which we can direct our desires to the good and perfect. The means of grace such as church attendance, singing, and other worship then course correct our lives.
These ordinary activities evidence an extraordinary power of God in us. The passions of the flesh still trip us up on the progressive journey of sanctification. But we can reach it through the Spirit; and we can become the salt of the earth because we can show the world what is good and right through our actions.