The reason this really scares me is because it is the worse kind of self-deception, the one that carries the worse consequences. The Apostle Paul and written to his friend Timothy about the last days. He warned:
There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. (2 Timothy 3:1-5)
The worse thing in this list is "having a form of godliness but denying its power" because of the self-deception involved. All the time thinking that their piety is confirmation of their salvation but all they have done is conformed themselves to acceptable behaviour. In his earlier letter Paul wrote to Timothy:
Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great. (1 Timothy 3:16)
How could godliness be such a great mystery if it is only a matter of conforming our behaviour, following a set of do's and dont's, obeying God's law? Too often now we are hearing self-help sermons being preached instead of the power of Jesus to transform us. Paul wrote the above statement after giving Timothy a list of instructions about how to select leaders in the Church. It is quite the list that makes leaders sound like well disciplined, self-made, successful men and women. That is how it reads if you isolate it from the rest of the Word of God.
Reading this passage within the context of the gospel of grace, of the transforming blood of Jesus Christ, of the born again truth, you can understand what Paul is saying. There is "fruit" that is produced in our life through the power of the mysterious transformation that takes place in a heart occupied by Jesus. It is the mystery of godliness, as our behaviour and attitude is changed, not by our will but by the new nature of our heart. Many people will try to copy it, will conform to it but there is only power in it when it has happened by the transforming presence of Christ.
The easiest thing for me to do is stand before the congregation and give them a list of behaviours they should change. I can tell them they should be kinder, more loving, more compassionate and so on, and I have. Without understanding what I was doing I was teaching changed behaviour instead of the power of Jesus. We forget that we have no power in ourselves. We are slaves. Our choice is who we decide to obey. Will it be our sin nature that leaves us with no choice but to live in rebellion to God, or, will it be to God's righteousness which provokes godliness in us?
Paul compared these two natures quite nicely to the Galatians and I want us to note that he was describing what is produced from these two different natures. It is not us who does this but the nature that possesses us, that we have been enslaved to. First the sinful nature:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
Without Jesus we have no choice, we cannot change this behaviour. We may be able to hide some of these things in the darkness but we have no power to change the root of how we think or what we do. We need to accept this as truth because it is the reason Jesus had to die on the cross.
Now for the nature of righteousness:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:22-24)
It is not us who decide to be more loving or kind, it is what the Spirit produces in the heart of those who are occupied with Jesus.
If we want to change for the better we have to swim against the current of today's teaching. Instead of listening to all the garbage about how we can improve ourselves we have to surrender to the realization that we can't change anything. Real change happens in an attitude of dying to ourselves and living in Christ. If you want to change then spend more time with Jesus. Transformation can only happen in a life completely focused on Jesus Christ, when we do what we can to stay in step with the Spirit. Instead of concentrating on your behaviour concentrate on Jesus. Behaviour is nothing more than the fruit of the nature of your heart. If that heart is possessed by Jesus then godliness will result but if it is our sinful nature then nothing we do can change it. It is not conformity we want to see in the Church but the awesome transformation brought about by the powerful blood of Jesus.
It is time to stop preaching self-improvement and start allowing the Spirit to produce the fruit of righteousness in us. It is as an old pastor of mine use to say; "The more time you spend with Jesus the more he rubs off on you."