The Most Important Things You’ll Ever Learn to Change

The Most Important Things You’ll Ever Learn to Change

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One of the more surprising things I have learned from a career in counseling is that the average Christian does not know how to change. The Bible’s word for change is repentance. Knowing how to do it is the most important thing you will ever know. The doctrine of repentance has thirteen steps. May the Lord bless you as you take these steps.

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Time to Change

The irony is that the purpose of Jesus coming was so we could change. The point and force of the gospel are about change. One of the reasons we have lost our way is that we think about change primarily from a salvation perspective rather than a sanctification perspective. The point of salvation is to get you into a position to change. The real change happens after you are born again. Like your physical birth, you were not complete when you came into the world, but only after years of growing into a fuller version of yourself were you mature (1 Peter 2:2). This process to maturity is what Paul was teaching the Ephesians.

Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Getting saved is not all you need. It is all you need to be justified, adopted, and secure your seat in heaven, but salvation does not change you in the way you need to be up-fitted for living in a fallen world. Paul was talking to saved people who needed to change. Their big problem was not being born again, but it was working out their salvation (Philippians 2:12-13) in such a way that they could resolve their personal and relational problems.

After laying the salvation foundation, you begin to build the house. Sanctification is where too many Christians drop the ball. They do not know how to create the house. Then they marry people who do not know how to change. Then they have children who do not know how to change. The accumulative effect is ongoing, exported dysfunction.

What about You?

Let’s make it personal: if someone came to you and asked you to unpack the doctrine of repentance, could you do it? Could you walk them through all the elements of change? There are thirteen elements in the process of change. Apart from being born again, learning and applying these things are the most important things you will ever do. The reason is that your life is made up of three parts:

  1. You were lost.
  2. You were saved.
  3. You spend the rest of your life being sanctified.

If you have been saved, you are a stage three Christian. The rest of your life is about repentance—the ongoing process of changing or what is called progressive sanctification. You do not need to be born again, again, but you must always be evolving into Christlikeness.

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The Steps to Repentance

The Sin Removing Process

Step One – Sin

Sin is the only negative in the process of change, and it is the reason for repentance. If sin did not happen, you would not need to repent, and Jesus would not have needed to come and die for you. Sin is the great separator that comes between you, God, and others. The key to step one is for you to have clear and theological sin categories. Without being tenacious and discerning regarding the identification of sin, you will never repent.

The temptation is to soften sin by (1) blaming it, (2) justifying it, or (3) rationalizing it away as though it doesn’t exist. These three anti-gospel approaches to sin will dull your life (Hebrews 5:12-14), quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and keep you separated from the richness of relationships that you could enjoy with God and others. Take the “sin softening” test. Using the sin of anger, see how well you are at identifying it in your life. From the Anger Spectrum, pick out the ways this sin manifests in your life. Without clear sin categories, you will never be able to change.

The Anger Spectrum

Step Two – Guilt

When you sin, you are guilty before God. This concept is a nonnegotiable truth regardless of the awareness levels of sin in your life. God is the final authority, so when sin happens, there is guilt. Blaming, justifying, or rationalizing your sin away does not remove your guilt.

Though you can manipulate others or pretend your actions don’t matter, you cannot manipulate God. Negotiating with sin will send your soul to a dark place. Detachment from God’s perspective regarding your actions is not where you want to be (Hebrews 3:7). To deny your sin is a form of insanity.

Step Three – Conviction

Conviction is mercy from the Lord. It is the realization that you have done something wrong. At this point, you should respond to His mercy. Some people do not respond, and this is where their consciences begin to harden (1 Timothy 4:2; Romans 2:14-15). In time, it becomes more difficult for them to sense when they have done wrong (Hebrews 4:7-8). If this happens, they will never be able to have their sin neutralized, which will be the death knell to their souls and relationships.

Step Four – Confession

Biff gets mad with Mable. He huffs under his breath after she does not respond promptly to him. Because Biff has solid sin categories, he immediately feels conviction from the Spirit of God, and he confesses his sin.

The word confess means to agree. Biff agrees with God that his huffing was a form of murder, according to James 4:1-2. His sensitivity to the Spirit moves him to make it clear with God and Mable that he understands what he did was sinful. He confesses his sin to both God and Mable. The key to confession is for the sphere of the offense and the sphere of confession to be the same. Meaning that you should confess your sin to all the people who experienced your sin. That is what Biff did.

Step Five – Pre-Forgiveness

Typically, the need for repentance involves other people besides God. In the case of Biff, he sinned against his wife. This type of situation is where it gets dicey between people and where relationships become difficult because Mable must forgive Biff; he needs her to release him from his sin. But there is a problem. This is not the first time Biff has sinned against Mable that way, which has been the impetus for her to harbor her form of anger toward Biff. Mable is bitter. Though Biff is asking, she is unwilling to forgive him.

This idea is called pre-forgiveness, a word I manufactured as a way of communicating the heart of Joseph before his brothers came to him to ask forgiveness. This kind of attitude was also the spirit of Christ before you came asking for His forgiveness. Being ready and willing to forgive the sinner is essential if you want to reconcile. If you have not done the preparatory work in your heart to forgive someone, when they do ask for forgiveness, you will have a hard time forgiving them.

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Step Six – Forgiveness

Sin is not a one-way street. It takes two, the offender and the offended. If the victim is mature, there will be a willingness to grant forgiveness. If the victim is not mature, the relationship will experience another sin: the offended person will become an offender. This irony is a common scenario in relationships. For Mable to work through her anger, she will need to start the process of repentance and work her way down to the point of asking Biff to forgive her for her anger.

Everything said thus far is about the neutralization and removal of sin. These are prerequisite steps that must happen before two people can genuinely reconcile. If they do not successfully navigate through these six steps, their sin remains, and reconciliation will never happen.

It is common for a couple to come to counseling with step eight in mind, while they have not done steps one through six. It’s the equivalent of building a house on a nuclear waste dump. There is no hope for them if they are unwilling to neutralize and remove the waste in their marriage. If you try to help two people get along with each other, but they have not humbly, authentically, and successfully gone through the preceding steps, do not be surprised if your effort does not work.

Step Seven – Post-Forgiveness

You cannot mask sin or pretend it does not exist. You will know if they can move forward after forgiveness by how they react to each other, specifically as they talk about what happened. Biblical forgiveness removes sin, just like when God forgave you by eliminating your sin and dropping it in the depths of the sea, never to be held against you again. If Biff and Mable have removed the sin that is between them, they can come together with nothing hindering authentic reconciliation.

Step Eight – Reconciliation

They are ready to come together because there is nothing between them. It’s a true family hug. Reconciliation has happened, which is not the same as restoration. Reconciliation brings two people together, while restoration is the process of addressing what went wrong with the hope of implementing a plan to keep from becoming a repeat offender.

The Restoration Process

Step Nine – Restoration

At this point, Biff and Mable can work together to restore their relationship with God and each other. They have neutralized the thing that brought division between them. The power of the gospel has been powerful for them. Steps nine through twelve are where the process of repentance kicks into full gear. In most cases, the sin committed was committed numerous times. Repeat offenses are what make this next section so helpful. They need to be fully restored (Galatians 6:1-2). Too often, people go through the “I’m sorry” thing, which disables them from helping each other stop the ongoing patterns of sin in their lives.

Saying “I’m sorry” can move the relationship along, but it will not change the relationship or change you. “I’m sorry” is a passive statement that does not require active repentance. “Will you forgive me” is a sin actively owned, confessed, and followed up with specific steps to change.

Step Ten – Put Off

With the sin nailed to Christ’s cross, you can now talk about it, which is the litmus test that will tell you if it has been adequately confessed and forgiven. If you cannot talk about what you did, the sin still has a life. But if you have put it to death on Christ’s cross, you can begin talking about and learning from what you did wrong.

You want to kill the sin so that you can put it off entirely. You don’t want to keep doing the same thing over and over again. Your objective is to kill it and practice putting it off. It is best to do this in a community. If you are married, your spouse is the best person to help you stop doing sinful things.

Step Eleven – Renew Your Mind

All sin starts in the heart (Luke 6:45; James 1:14-15). While it is wise to amputate sinful behaviors (Matthew 5:29-30), it is transformative to cut the sin out at its root (Romans 8:13). Your thoughts must be captivated by the power of the gospel (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; Philippians 4:8). Without a change in your soul, your actions will never change long-term.

Step Twelve – Put On

If your sin is dead and the other person is not trying to resurrect it, you can work together on removing the underlying causes that give vitality to the sin. If you are not willing to work together by removing the future possibility of sin’s attempt to disrupt your lives, it will most definitely reappear, and the cycle of frustration will continue while cutting deeper ruts into your souls. One of the amazing things about the power of the gospel is how you can sin against someone, and the person you sinned against comes alongside you to help you overcome the sin. Like Jesus, former enemies are now co-laborers in the fight against sin.

Step Thirteen – Disciple Others

Removing sin, reconciling with God and others, and living a holy life is not full repentance. The first twelve steps prepare you to make your repentance complete. God has called you to do more than getting right with Him and others. He wants you to help others get right too. This kind of gospel initiative is at the heart of the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20)

If you make it this far in the sin-removing process, do not stop. Go and serve others. Make disciples. Share what you have learned and applied with the hope others will follow you (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:1). Full repentance moves you from being self-centered to being other-centered.

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need (Ephesians 4:28).

Call to Action

  1. What does repentance look like in your life and relationships?
  2. As you think through these thirteen steps, is there a step you do not practice?
  3. Steps 1-6 are the killing of your sin. How effective are you in actively working out those steps?
  4. Steps 7-13 are the removal of your sin. Are you learning how to stop being a repeat offender?
  5. Who is in your life to help you work out your salvation in practical and transformative ways?

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