John Lennon famously sang that,
Everybody’s talking and no one says a word; there’s always something happening and nothing going on; there’s always something cooking and nothing in the pot; everybody’s running and no one makes a move; everybody’s flying and no one leaves the ground.
Perhaps reflecting the larger modern age’s desire to make the world better, transformationalism is the hot parlance of the day in Protestant and Reformed circles. Curiously gone are older terms which seem to capture a more resonating notion of what happens (or doesn’t happen) in our earthly striving as justified sinners, dusty and rather ordinary words like mortification and vivification. The therapeutic age has replaced such terms with various power phrases which seem derived from some notion or other of self-improvement, individual or social. Sitting under an otherwise highly edifying catechetical sermon recently on the nature of sin and grace and justification, it was particularly noticeable when the opportunity arose to make heavy weather of sanctification the T-word was instead used. How odd, given that the more informal formulation Reformed ordo salutis includes no where this phrase: election, predestination, gospel call, inward call, regeneration, conversion (faith & repentance), justification, sanctification, glorification. And the more formal confessional formulations barely employ the word, and when done so, doesn’t impress so much as a power therapeutic phrase but as a subservient one to the broader conception of sanctification.
Of course, transformationalism usually has in view place instead of person. The first principles here are quite different from those one might call localism. In transformationalism the premise is necessarily that there is something fundamentally wrong with a place. In localism, it is assumed that any place, be it the (allegedly) mean streets of Manhattan, or the rocky roads of Antrim county, are essentially good as they are; nothing needs to change. In this way, where localism nurtures place, transformationalism shames it. Transformationalism may pretend to love the place it has in its sights, but when the premise is that there is something essentially awry it really is arrogance with a smile. Does one imagine this sort of posture during common courtship or upon taking martial vows? Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that the idea of changing a person upon commencing a serious adult relationship is actually quite adolescent, patronizing and just plain foolishness.
But the alternative to outside-in transformationalism isn’t much improved by an inside-out one. Even when the focus shifts from inanimate creation (place) to animate creation (people), as it must since the sole object of God’s redemptive work is what was made in his own image and likeness, the lingo of transformationalism still falls flat. Human beings are creatures of the Creator. This means we are essentially very good. It is our condition that is hell bound. Christianity is about saving a very good animate creation that has brought itself, along with inanimate creation, into a totally depraved state of being.
But the call is for Christianity to translate into immediately known categories. Everyone wants the relevancy of “changed lives” and those lives to “change the world,” whatever that really means. The result can be Christians holding out more a pagan theology than a Christian one when it comes to just what is happening in the mystery of God’s lifelong inner work of mortifying the flesh and vivifying us unto salvation. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain and forget the fact that Christians appear no different than pagans, or that said mystery is created and confirmed in such seemingly uncharismatic elements like words, water, bread and wine. Forget all that and force a theology of glory that suggests we can indeed transcend our own humanity in one way or another. There are all sorts of ways to have your best life now, from the crass to sophisticated and all stops in between. That is a lot of flying for never leaving the ground.
But like someone once said in making the point that personal transformation is just plain different from the work of God,
The new birth – conversion and repentance – now that’s a completely different kettle of fish. God assails me from out of nowhere in judgment by His Word and Spirit; nails me, brings me to the point of agreeing with His judgment about me, and then executes me. And then through that pulls me out through the other side alive with Christ out at the other end as new creatures [sic]… It’s called mortification (dying to self) and vivification (living to God in Jesus Christ). And it doesn’t just happen once, but every day until we’re glorified. Furthermore, it’s something that God does to us through His Word of Law and Gospel. Not something that we can do for ourselves, through our own clever programs.
Could it be that the “before and after shot” of the new birth properly understood is not quite as attractive and winsome as we naturally think? Could it be that despite the call to stomp on his records in 1966 that by the time 1984 rolled around Lennon’s dumber statements about Christianity were made up for by a grasp on the apparent conflict between the theology of glory and that of the Cross?
Everyone’s a winner and no one seems to lose. There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Katmandu.
Little idol indeed.