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We Can’t Change People—and Why That’s Good News

Why are so many in my church just not changing?

Why do some grow quickly and move ahead in the Christian life, while others drift or always seem stuck in neutral? Why do two young addicts profess faith, get involved in church life, have the same discipleship opportunities, and gain new friendships—and yet one flounders while the other flourishes?

At Niddrie Community Church we have a comprehensive discipleship program for new believers. Yet many still crumble when intense temptation comes their way. What’s the problem? And what can be done about it?

Replace, Don’t Just Remove

The answer lies in the heart. We know Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” We also know from Mark 7:21 that the heart is the root of all bad behavior. Verse after verse points to our hearts when tracing our sin problem. The famous Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), in his famous sermon “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” hits the target:

Seldom do any of our habits or flaws disappear by a process of extinction through reasoning or by the mere force of mental determination. Reason and willpower are not enough. But what cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed. . . . The only way to dispossess [the heart] of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.  A young man, for example, may cease to idolize pleasure, but it is only because the idol of wealth has become stronger and gotten the ascendancy, and is enabling him to discipline himself for prosperous business. Even the love of money ceases to have the mastery over the heart if it’s drawn into another world of ideology and politics, and he is now lorded over by the love of power. But there is not one of these [identity] transformations in which the heart is left without an object. Its desire for one particular object may be conquered, but . . . its desire for having some one object of absolute love is unconquerable.

It is only when admitted into the number of God’s children through the faith that is in Jesus Christ [that] the spirit of adoption is poured out upon us. It is then that the heart, brought under the mastery of one great and predominate affection, is delivered from the tyranny of its former desires, in the only way that deliverance is possible. So it isn’t enough to hold out a mirror of its imperfections to your soul. It’s not enough to lecture your conscience. Rather, you must try every legitimate method of finding access to your hearts for the love of him who is greater than the world.

Our Only Hope

In ministry we must constantly do two things: (1) Go after the heart by (2) preaching the gospel. Most pastoral frustration arises out of anger (usually not expressed) toward those who won’t change or seemingly don’t listen to our advice. But if Chalmers is right, then the answer to all our “why’s?” is simply that people don’t love Jesus enough. Why has that individual gone back to the heroin? Because Jesus did not capture their affections. How should we respond? By returning to the gospel, over and over, and holding out the glorious love of Jesus.

Don’t chase them down. Don’t harass them. Don’t guilt-trip them. Don’t pressure them. Just keep proclaiming the good news. Keep praying that God, by his Spirit, will so grip their heart that only King Jesus can sit on the throne of their life.

Burnout often occurs in ministry because we’re overwhelmed by the needs of others, or we’re overburdened by those who seem intent on destroying themselves—even though they know the truth. These are the times we must go after our own hearts, and remind ourselves of the gospel we preach.

No matter how great our pastoral gifting or how amazing our expositional ministry, we cannot change anyone. The transformation of a human heart is exclusively the work of God’s Spirit. Only when the Spirit has effected this miracle will a person live under the Lordship of Jesus.

Those excelling and growing in our community are not always the brightest or even the ones I thought would “make it.” They are the ones who, when they grasped what Jesus sacrificed for them, made him their one true love. They’re all over the place at times, but you can see Christ as the root and source of their affections.

Keep Sowing

In the mess of ministry, we must not grow disheartened by “rollercoaster Christians.” It happened to Jesus. Judas fell away. His best friends dumped him. The crowds wandered off. But Jesus kept aiming at the heart, and so must we. Chalmers maintained it’s not enough to lecture the conscience. He was right. Instead, we must try “every legitimate method of finding access to hearts for the love of him who is greater than the world.”

We can’t change people. Our programs can’t change them. Our love can’t change them. Only God can change them. Only his love can melt hard hearts.

Since we cannot change people, and since they cannot change themselves, we must hand them over to the ultimate Lover of souls. We must pray he would hold sway over them, that he would change them from the inside out.

Ministry is tiring and is no doubt difficult for many of you. We often feel our failures more than we rejoice in Christ’s victories. But we must press on. The harvest is still plentiful. There is still a crop to be had. Some of it will turn out rotten, but some of it will be fruitful. Don’t let a bad winter stop you from planting again.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (Gal. 6:9).

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