The call to be transformed fills our ears wherever we go. There are advertisements encouraging us to transform our bodies, community groups seeking to transform neighbourhoods, protests striving to transform the justice system, even movements looking to transform culture.
Mennonite Brethren also have a vision for transformation. MB Mission’s goal is “holistic church planting that transforms communities,” the U.S. Mennonite Brethren conference seeks the “transformation of individuals, families and communities,” and the new Canadian conference mission statement declares that we exist “to multiply Christ-centred churches to see Canada transformed by the good news of Jesus Christ.”
We commonly use the word “transformation” to talk about change, but what do we really mean by it? We know real change is needed in our world, so what kind of transformation are we seeking?
Scripture offers a way of understanding transformation that may stretch our definition of the word.
Changing into another form
The word “transformation” is rarely used in the New Testament. Instead of merely referring to a general sense of change,
biblical transformation is potent language referring to a person’s dramatic change into another form. It’s like the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly.
The Gospel writers describe Jesus as being transformed in front of his disciples when he appears in dazzling white clothes alongside Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:3; Matthew 17:2). Jesus’ physical transformation reveals the reality of his “form” as the Son of God to those who have “eyes to see” his identity as “the Christ” (Mark 8:29, 9:7; Matthew 16:16).
Yet these same disciples struggle to recognize how the path of suffering and death before Jesus is the way of the kingdom. It is only when they “see” how the way of the cross completely transforms their perception of success that they will also be followers of Jesus (Matthew 16:21–26).
An ongoing process
The two other references to transformation in the New Testament describe ongoing, dynamic change taking place within believers.
In Romans 12:2, transformation is both a command – “be transformed” – and a continual process that happens to believers when God is the agent of transformation.
In 2 Corinthians 3:18, Paul says that believers are being transformed into the image of Christ by God’s Spirit so that our lives increasingly reflect Jesus’ character – a new form – rather than our old selves (Romans 8:29; Galatians 2:20).
It is when the Spirit of God is invited into human hearts through faith that this transformation begins. The presence of the indwelling Spirit not only cleanses us from sin and reconciles us to God, but also begins to reshape our very being around the person of Jesus.
To talk about transformation only makes sense when we truly understand what kind of radical change the Bible is
As we walk through our neighbourhood or stroll through the mall, it’s easy to discount – or at least sanitize – the biblical picture of those who live in darkness, without hope, because they are alienated from God (Ephesians 2:12). The idea of inner blindness, futile thinking and hardened hearts doesn’t seem to fit with the trendy fashions or clean, attractive environments that surround us, or the politically correct ways we describe our world.
The persistent pressure to conform to this age leads to darkened minds unable to perceive the reality of God or understand his ways (Romans 1:21, 28; Ephesians 4:17–19). Transformation removes the veil used by the god of this age to blind and harden people’s hearts (2 Corinthians 3:14–15; 4:4).
The language of transformation recognizes that the change needed is so profound that the Bible calls it the beginning of a new life (Romans 8:11; John 3:3-8).
Death and renewal
So how are we transformed?
Transformation involves offering our bodies as a living sacrifice to God where “we are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:10–11). While we cannot transform ourselves, our part is to willingly submit to the transforming work of God in our lives.
Ironically, it is only as we intentionally put to death our old self with its values, ambitions, attitudes and behaviours that we are able to be changed into the form of Jesus – the new self that God has created us to be (Ephesians 4:22–24; Colossians 3:5–10). This process of transformation is not a quick fix, but instead offers hope for healing, restoration and freedom.
Transformation also involves the renewal of the mind or the daily renewal of the inner person (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 4:16). At its core, this entails a drastic altering of how we perceive reality – the way we see everything is fundamentally changed by the cross and resurrection. Our ability to “see” Jesus as Lord revolutionizes everything!
Our mind is now able perceive the invisible God and we can begin to understand what his will is for our lives. We are able to see what is unseen, like recognizing that suffering is only temporary, because we walk by faith (2 Corinthians 4:18, 5:7). This renewal in perception transforms us into people who both think and live differently (Romans 12:3–21).
Transformation of community
If God is at work transforming our hearts and minds, then this inner change begins to create a people of God who actually live differently and are no longer separated by the barriers and distinctions that tend to divide humanity (Ephesians 2:15; Galatians 3:28).
The church, as a “new creation,” is not only the temple of the living God in which he dwells by his Spirit, it’s a new form of what it means to be a community of God’s people (1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 2:16). Transformation is always first about the church.
We may wonder whether we as the church are really much different from those who don’t call Jesus Lord.
It is here we humbly recognize that the transformation of the church involves three things:
1. Transformation is a vision calling us to change.
2. Transformation is an ongoing process that happens to us.
3. Transformation is a command for us to follow – “be transformed” (Romans 12:2)!
God’s ongoing work within the church is to create a people who are being transformed – who actually love one another, accept one another and forgive one another.
Transformation as witness
Transformation begins to spread to others when the church lives as a witness to what it looks like to live under God’s reign. For example, when God’s children love not only their neighbours but also their enemies, people are shocked (Matthew 5:43–45). It makes no sense for someone to forgive others who have caused suffering or loss. What kind of person could love or forgive like this?
But as God’s people reflect the life of Jesus in their lives, something begins to change in the way those around them see the world – their perception of reality is altered. Who could possibly enable someone to really love others, to forgive without vengeance?
Paul calls us a “letter from Christ,” written on human hearts by the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 3:2–6). While this message is held in “jars of clay,” the transforming work of God reveals the power and presence of the living God who offers an invitation for all to respond to him (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Transformation’s ripple effect
If God is really able to transform not only our hearts and minds but also our very lives, what effect can this have on our families, communities and nation?
Certainly, the transformation of God’s people will affect those around them: the poor will be cared for, broken relationships will be restored, the sick will be healed, the oppressed will be set free and justice will be proclaimed (Luke 4:18–19). God loves the world and seeks to reconcile all things to himself through Christ (John 3:16; Colossians 1:20).
God’s purpose is to transform people, and when his people are transformed, changes take place within social systems and structures. However, we must be careful not to assume that changes to systems or structures will then actually transform people.
Powerful political methods for change – education, lobbying, protest or even coercive force – offer only an external illusion of transformation. Attempts to motivate, regulate, legislate or enforce behaviour cannot transform people’s hearts and minds either in society or within the church.
Jesus calls those who have “eyes to see” to experience the transforming power of his Spirit in their lives by entering into God’s kingdom through the cross. Jesus, who “loved us and gave himself up for us,” models for his followers how to invite others on this journey of transformation (Ephesians 5:1–2).
—Doug Heidebrecht is currently working in an international setting. Previously, he served as director of the Centre for MB Studies in Winnipeg and as an instructor in biblical and theological studies at Bethany College in Hepburn, Sask.