How do caterpillars turn into butterflies or tadpoles turn into frogs? The term we use for the change is metamorphosis. With that in mind I was intrigued years ago by a study I did on Christ’s transformation on the Mount of Transfiguration. I found that the underlying Greek word for the transfiguration comes from the Greek term, “metamorphao”.
I was intrigued because the same Greek term for transformation is used in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind . . .”
Is it possible that the same sort of brilliance Jesus displayed on the mountain when “his face shown like the sun” is what Paul calls us to as growing believers? In a certain way we can say, yes, it’s true: God will change us to look like Christ did in his glory on the mountain that day.
But first we should ask how to read this section of Romans. Is this a call to self-transformation based on better teaching and stronger discipline? Is Paul calling on us to work harder as we try to learn and apply “the will of God” (verse 3) with more energy and consistency? Are we expected to “transfigure” our own character?
Many Christians seem to think so. And Romans 12:1-3 seems to fit this view of the soul. That is, that everyone has three mutually engaged motivational centers: the mind, will, and affections. The mind does the objective work of processing information; the will brings thinking to action by making choices; and the affections respond to whatever stirs our desires and then pursues those preferences with varied degrees of force. If the mind is taught, the will disciplined, and the emotions controlled, a person is certain to grow properly. So Paul is calling all believers to start employing what he taught in the first eleven chapters of Romans on the basis of this model.
We can agree that he is, indeed, calling for a response to chapters one through eleven, but I hope we won’t agree that he has the Stoic troika of mind-will-affections as his basis for seeing this transformation take place. He certainly did not.
How can we be certain? Because of his earlier scolding of Israel for pursuing their own spiritual growth by works rather than by faith (see 11:30-32). A steady point Paul makes throughout his New Testament writings is that transformation is God’s work, and God does that work from the inside-out: changing our hearts. Only a new heart will lead to changed behaviors. And with that he views the affections as the one-and-only motivational basis for life, so the question to answer is, “Who do you love?” and not “what must I think or do?”
Faith works solely through love, as Paul said very clearly to the Galatians (in 5:6). And he is saying the same here in Romans 12. In Romans 5:2 Paul explained that our “hope of the glory of God” relies on “God’s love [that] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (verse 5).
This Spirit-gift is what transforms us, and our thinking now responds to that reality. So where we once lived among those who are “haters of God” (Romans 1:30), we now “delight in the law of God in [our] inner being” (Romans 7:22) and are being called to our new lives as “more than conquerors through him who loved us” so that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:37&38). That’s what we reflect on in chapter 12 as our minds engage this love as our new basis for life.
But what of the “metamorphosis” sort of language that Paul used? I think it offers a crucial clue we need to embrace in understanding Paul’s overall thought. He used the same term in 2 Corinthians 3, and there he links it to the sort of brilliant “glory” the apostles got to see on the Mount of Transfiguration.
In the Corinthians text Paul referred to the glory Moses had when he came away from the presence of God’s shining, glorious person in the Tent of Meeting: with a glowing face! What Paul suggests to the Corinthians is that any direct exposure to Christ’s presence, when he is unveiled, will have the same result. But the “glory” is now inward, where the Spirit resides and shares Christ with us, so that he “transforms” us “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Here’s the point: change only comes from God. He alone can transform us. And our sole role is to be present to him: to be with him, loving him, enjoying him. The product? New thinking, new ambitions, and new behaviors, as in Romans 13:10, “love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Isn’t it time to change our minds? Let’s do it by abiding in his word where we can abide in his love. The world can use a few more frogs, butterflies, and glory-filled Christians.
Having grown up in the Stoic tradition, wherein I was taught to “think and do what is right, and the love for Christ will follow,” I can attest to the fact that it is a hopeless endeavor. Furthermore, it leads to frustration, sometimes apathy, and a feeling of slavery in trying to “live out” the Christian life. In contrast, when we experience the love of God more and more as the Holy Spirit pours His love into our hearts, we are transformed, as you state, from the inside out. No striving, gritting our teeth, etc. His love is a heart-transforming love which offers joy, freedom, and life abundant! I read another article recently by Huw Williams, a recent Cor Deo participant, which addresses this topic from a musical angle. I’ll include the link in case anyone’s interested: