How People Change
by Paul David Tripp and Timothy S. Lane
Punch Press: Winston-Salem (2006, 2008)
Reviewed by Donn R Arms
The traditional view of the gospel’s relationship to change is that salvation is foundational to change. Once a person is justified before God by believing in Christ’s saving work on the cross, and made a new creature, he then begins the work of co-laboring with God in the growth process, also known as sanctification. The traditional view sees our role, after being made a new creature (born again), as many-faceted in regard to biblical instruction—the primary role being the learning of God’s Word and the application of it to life via obedience in how we think and behave (Matthew 7:24).
The traditional view makes a significant distinction between justification (redemption), sanctification (growing into Christ-likeness), and glorification (complete transformation). It sees justification and glorification as acts of God alone apart from human participation or monergistic, but sees sanctification as synergistic or a cooperative (but none the less dependent) work with God. Obviously, an accurate view and description of our participation is vital to affecting real and lasting change.
For Tripp and Lane, however, the gospel message is not only for the unregenerate, but efficacious for real and lasting change in the life of a believer. Certainly, as Christians move into our relationship with Christ as not only Savior, but also Lord, we should never leave behind an appreciation for the sacrifice of Christ that saved us. The authors claim, however, that the same elements of justification must be carried forward into sanctification without anything being added. In fact, for believers to even make an effort to align our thinking with Scripture is an act on our part that denies Christ as Savior:
. . . and the Bible does call us to change the way we think about things. But this approach again omits the person and work of Christ as Savior. Instead, it reduces our relationship to Christ to “think his thoughts” and “act the way Jesus would act” (p. 27, 2006).
Throughout the book, the authors embrace parts of the traditional view, but view the traditional elements through a non-traditional prism, and give the traditional elements of change a different meaning. In this case they trade the traditional idea that Christians are to make an effort to align our thoughts with Scripture with the idea that we should do something else instead that leads to biblical thinking as a natural result of the living Christ acting on our behalf and apart from our initial efforts. According to the authors, the traditional approach omits the “work” of Christ in our sanctification and omits Christ as “Savior.”
Lane and Tripp do not deny that Christians have a role in the sanctification process. But what exactly is that role? If the traditional view of our exertion (effort in aligning our life with Scripture) in sanctification is out, what is in? Answer: deep repentance, the second major thrust of the book which we will discuss later.
Repentance is a form of emptying the heart . . . Along with deep repentance, Scripture calls us to faith that rests and feeds upon the living Christ. He fills us with himself through the person of the Holy Spirit and our hearts are transformed by faith. (p 28)
Our efforts are out; a faith that “rests and feeds” is in. So, like justification, sanctification is limited to the narrow elements of faith and repentance only. We don’t apply effort to align our lives with Scripture in order to be saved, and we don’t for sanctification (real and lasting change) either.
Throughout HPC, Christ is referred to as “the living Christ.” Believers have no ability to perform works, or add works to their faith because believers are still spiritually dead, and the only life within us is Christ. On pages 64 and 65 Christians are described as being dead, powerless, enslaved, alienated from God, enemies of God, fools, and those who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. In other words, our condition is not changed from what we were before salvation. Referring to believers, the authors write: “when you are dead, you can’t do anything” (p. 64). Therefore, we can’t do anything leaving only the “living Christ” to perform works on our behalf.
This is a synthesizing of justification and sanctification. Our ability to perform works pleasing to God is in the same context as those who are unregenerate. We are clearly unable. The authors illustrate this with the story of Andy:
In both phases of his Christian life, the work of Christ on the cross was radically minimized by Andy’s own efforts. The first three years evidenced a Christ-less activism that produced pride and self-sufficiency (p. 184, 2006).
Andy’s “own efforts” in “his Christian life” are in direct relation (according to the authors) to how prevalent redemption (“the work of Christ on the cross”) was in Andy’s life. The fact that Andy’s efforts to obey might have been misguided is not the point that the authors are making here. The authors only cite Andy’s “own efforts” in “his Christian life” with no traditional consideration of erroneous efforts to obey that are inconsistent with the Scriptures being rightly divided.
In essence, it resembles an ongoing need to be saved (redeemed) daily through the works of Christ only. Referring to 1 Cor. 10:13-14 the authors state:
What Paul envisions here is not just the change that takes place when we come to Christ, but the lifestyle of change that results from an ongoing sense of our need for redemption (progressive sanctification) (p. 102, 2006).
Progressive sanctification is redefined as “an ongoing sense of our need for redemption.” However, the redemption he is speaking of is the same redemption that originally saved us (“when we came to Christ…and the ‘ongoing’ need for it”). Tripp and Lane believe that there is little difference between justification and sanctification. If we can’t do works to be saved, neither can we do works in the sanctification process.
But what about all the commands in the Bible that are obviously directed toward us? Are we not supposed to obey the principles and commands of Scripture? Yes, but . . .
. . . a behavioral approach to change is hollow because it ignores the need for Christ and his (sic) power to change first the heart and then the behavior. Instead, even the Christian version of this separates the commands of Scripture from their Christ-centered, gospel context. (p. 26)
By “Christ-centered, gospel context,” they mean obedience via the cross (works of Christ, not ours). This can also be seen in their view of the use of Scripture as instruction, or “directions” to be read and then followed:
One of the mistakes we make in handling God’s Word is that we reduce it to a set of directions on how we live. We look for directions about relationships, church life, sex, finances, marriage, happiness, parenting, and so on…..This does violence to the very nature of the Word of God and robs it of its power. The Bible is the world’s most significant story, the story of God’s cosmos-restoring work of redemption. The Bible is a “big picture” book. It introduces us to God, defines our identity, lays out the meaning and purpose of life, and shows us where to find help for the one disease that infests us all—sin. If you try to reduce the Bible to a set of directions, not only will you miss its overall wisdom, you will not make sense of the directions. They only make sense in the context of the whole story (p. 92, 2006).
Seeking, then, to find in the Scriptures instruction in Godliness (2 Tim 3:16) “does violence to the very nature of the Word of God and robs it of its power.”
The second tenet advocated by Tripp and Lane is deep introspection, or “deep repentance.”
Repentance is a form of emptying the heart….Along with deep repentance, Scripture calls us to faith that rests and feeds upon the living Christ. He fills us with himself through the person of the Holy Spirit and our hearts are transformed by faith. (p. 28)
Deep repentance, also called “intelligent repentance” by the authors, is a necessarily embellished form of orthodox repentance because of the narrow approach (faith and repentance only as our role) the book’s theory takes in regard to change. Heart idols must first be identified. Then repenting of them leads to the elimination thereof, creating a void that is filled by Christ and the release of His power accordingly.
Elements of deep repentance include asking God to forgive us of our own efforts, i.e., “repenting of righteousness” (p.190, 2006), and “seeing the sin beneath the sins” (p. 190, 2006) which requires an understanding that it is impossible to violate commands 4-10 (of the 10 commandments) without first violating commands 1-3, which are the commands that speak to heart idols. Therefore, you must get to the heart of why you sinned (idols of the heart covered in commands 1-3) before the violation of all other sins can be prevented. On pages 163-165 Lane and Tripp suggest a list of “X-ray questions” to determine types of desires linked to heart idols to aid in this “deep repentance.”
The third tenet is that of “the Bible as a narrative for change.” The authors say that the Bible is a simple story that all Christians can understand, and that God uses creation to write the book in word pictures (p. 93, 2006). The very purpose of the Bible, according to the authors, is to supply believers with a model of change that involves four basic elements: heat, thorns, cross, and fruit (p. 96, 2006). The authors say the Bible is a grand gospel story that encompasses all of the necessary elements needed for life and godliness in regard to our life story. Therefore, God calls us to come to the grand story with our story, and He invites us to place our life story into the grand story, discovering where our experience of life fits into one of the four elements of heat, thorns, cross, and fruit:
This big picture model is the story of every believer. God invites us to enter into the plot!” (p. 94, 2006).
For Tripp and Lane, all of Scripture falls under one of these categories, and these categories form the grand gospel story, which is the sole purpose of the Bible—to present a gospel story of real change that reveals God’s grace and provision accordingly.
By seeing our circumstances in heat (circumstances of life), thorns (desires and idols of the heart that cause us to sin), fruit (Christ working in us, or the consequences of sin), and God’s provision for all three (cross), we gain wisdom, encouragement, and a mentality that seeks to know a deeper need and dependence on Christ. Using Scripture for this purpose exalts Christ in our minds, makes us desire Him more, and deepens our sense of dependence on Him. This deepening sense of our dependence on Christ, which results from using the Scriptures in this way, creates a lifestyle of change because we come to realize that we need redemption every day, not just when we were originally saved. Total dependence on Christ becomes synonymous with faith to the exclusion of almost everything else. The Bible, then, is designed for the sole purpose of aiding the believer in faith (total dependence on God) and deep repentance.
How People Change is a pronounced departure from the traditional (or nouthetic) model of biblical change. It starts by synthesizing justification and sanctification, and narrows our role in spiritual growth to faith and repentance only. Their model presents the Bible as a gospel narrative, to the exclusion of all other purposes. The authors of HPC present a strange picture of believers who are still dead in trespasses and sins while being indwelled by Christ who is the only life within us, and therefore the only one working in the change process. Accordingly, total dependence on Christ is the key to real change. But how does this work itself out in the Christian’s life—a Christ Who obeys for us?
Christ referred to the Holy Spirit as our “helper” in John 14:16. Who is he helping? And what is He helping us do? The verse begins with a coordinating conjunction that connects it to the idea presented in the preceding verse, which says: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” One of the ministries of the Holy Spirit is to help us obey Christ. Let’s teach counselees to do just that.
This review originally appeared in the Journal of Modern Ministry.