Just reading billboards on a road trip is enough to realize that people want to change their lives. Whether it be physical, financial, or relational, there are a vast range of self-help industries that have sprung up around the world’s insatiable demand for self-improvement. In effect, they perpetuate a lie that dominates the world: you can change yourself.
Of course, it is possible to change some features of our lives—at least temporarily. We can change our hairstyles, get makeovers, lose weight, make more money, find love, change careers, or move to a new city and start all over. But our root problem always remains—an inner sinful nature that refuses to change.
You Can’t Change Yourself
Many of the changes in your life are a function of self-restraint or self-discipline. If you earnestly want to lose weight, stop smoking, or find a better job, you can achieve those external goals through acts of willpower.
But no amount of willpower can change the essentials of who you are. Your intellectual capacity and your genetic makeup are not malleable. Nor, critically, is the fundamental spiritual state you were born into. There is nothing you can do to shed your sin nature. The prophet Jeremiah effectively said as much when he rebuked Israel for their continual rebellion against God: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jeremiah 13:23).
Jeremiah understood the issue we discussed in our previous post—that all men are sinners by nature. He knew that we have as much chance of altering our own nature as changing the color of our skin, or stripping the spots off a leopard.
Self-help gurus like Tony Robbins may profess that “we can change our lives. We can do, have, and be exactly what we wish.”  https://www.facebook.com/TonyRobbins/posts/10154830028809060 (emphasis added). But it’s nothing more than a bogus promise built upon bankrupt theology.
Christian leaders should repudiate the worldly philosophy of Robbins, Oprah Winfrey, and their ilk with the truth of biblical anthropology—that all men are, by nature, totally depraved sinners. Instead, preachers like Joel Osteen and Steven Furtick see it as an opportunity to market a “Christianized” version of the same lie. In fact, Osteen has written an entire book on the subject. The promotional summary for his book The Power of I Am explains:
Can two words give you the power to change your life? Yes they can! In the pages of his new book, bestselling author Joel Osteen shares a profound principle based on a simple truth. Whatever follows the words “I am” will always come looking for you.
Osteen’s book wouldn’t be so offensive if it was properly categorized as fiction. Somehow it manages to adorn the shelves of Christian bookstores as biblical truth.
Yet no amount of self-help or positive confession can change the nature of a sinner. Nothing less than divine regeneration is needed.
Dead Men Need Resurrection, Not Reform
The apostle Paul described the fallen human condition as being “dead in your trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). All a dead man can do is remain in his present state. That is, unless God raises the dead and makes him a new creature. That’s why Paul also described Christian conversion as becoming “a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In the Old Testament, God confronted the prophet Ezekiel with the same reality regarding the dead spiritual condition of rebellious Israel. In Ezekiel 37:1–14, God transports the prophet to a valley of dry bones. As Ezekiel found himself surrounded by a vast sea of skeletal corpses, God asked him “can these bones live?” He could only respond, “O Lord God, You know” (Ezekiel 37:3), because Ezekiel knew only a divine miracle could revive those dry bones.
God gave Ezekiel a message to preach in that valley, but the mass resurrections that took place (Ezekiel 37:7-10) were because of the divine impartation of new life: “I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive” (Ezekiel 37:6). “I will put my Spirit within you and you will come to life” (Ezekiel 37:14).
That passage is an amazing picture of what evangelism really is. We stand among masses of people who are dead in sin. We aren’t called to persuade them back to life, or to modify their behavior along some imagined spectrum of morality. We’re not interested in merely rearranging the skeletons in Ezekiel’s valley.
We are called to proclaim the gospel, and trust God to raise His people from the death of sin to new life in Christ. Ultimately, it is only regeneration wrought by God that can produce any meaningful change in the spiritual status of a sinner.
Just prior to Ezekiel 37, God made it explicitly clear that He is sovereignly in charge of every meaningful change when a sinner is converted—everything from regeneration to sanctification. Note God’s repeated use of personal pronouns in Ezekiel 36:25–27.
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:25–27)
That passage was central to Christ’s discussion with Nicodemus. The Lord highlighted the uselessness of human effort as an agent of spiritual change. When Jesus told him that he needed to be “born again” (John 3:3), “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), He was referring back to Ezekiel 36:25–27. John MacArthur makes that connection in his commentary on John’s gospel.
It was surely this passage that Jesus had in mind, showing regeneration to be an Old Testament truth (cf. Deuteronomy 30:6; Jeremiah 31:31–34; Ezekiel 11:18–20) with which Nicodemus would have been acquainted. Against this Old Testament backdrop, Christ’s point was unmistakable: Without the spiritual washing of the soul, a cleansing accomplished only by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) through the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26), no one can enter God’s kingdom.
Jesus continued by emphasizing that this spiritual cleansing is wholly a work of God, and not the result of human effort: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). . . . Regeneration is entirely His work, unaided by any human effort (cf. Romans 3:25).  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: John 1–11 (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2006), 105.
Man-made efforts at personal transformation are about as useful as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They are temporary, superficial, and ultimately inconsequential.
Like Ezekiel, Christians need to focus on one thing: faithful proclamation of the message we have been commanded to preach. And God, in His sovereign wisdom, will regenerate the dead around us as He sees fit.
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