What causes people who have experienced God’s forgiveness from past sins and who trust in a glorious future with Him in Heaven to lead what the apostle Peter describes as “ineffective or unfruitful” lives (2 Peter 1:8) in between? Why do I, in my struggle against sin, often find myself trying to perfect by the flesh what was begun by the Spirit (Galatians 3:3)?
In their already classic work on “present grace,” How People Change, Tim Lane and Paul Tripp cite a failure to grasp the depth of our need for the gospel in the here and now. The book encourages believers to apply the powerful truths of the gospel to their daily struggle with sin, giving hope that real change is possible. The authors state the thesis of the book this way:
“It is not enough to embrace Christ’s promise of life after death. We must also embrace his promise of life before death, which is only possible because of Christ’s grace at work in our hearts today. This is what this book is about.”
Closing the “Gospel Gap”
Lane and Tripp address the “gospel gap” that exists between the Christian’s past forgiveness and future hope, suggesting that believers fill this gap with counterfeits. These counterfeits, which Paul terms “pretentions” in 2 Corinthians 10:5, include formalism (reducing the gospel to participation in the life of the church), legalism (a new gospel of rule-keeping), mysticism (a pursuit of experience instead of Christ), activism (participation in Christian causes), biblicism (mastery of biblical content and theology), “psychology-ism” (viewing Christ as a therapist instead of Christ as Savior), and “social-ism” (reducing the gospel to a network of Christian relationships).
Often, our churches unwittingly promote these methods and many Evangelicals today measure themselves by their standards. Only when these counterfeits are identified can they be replaced with the life-changing gospel of Christ.
Christ and Community at the Heart
At the center of the book lies the truth that Christ alone gives the believer all that he needs for life and godliness. In our marriage with Christ, we bring nothing but liabilities and Christ bring all of the assets, just as is true in salvation. Seeing ourselves as believers destitute of talents or abilities that we can apply towards holiness causes us to rely fully on Christ in our pursuit of godliness.
In a CCEF interview, Lane stated that “writing this book made me realize again that the most important thing in life is being united with Christ. Remembering all the past, present and future blessings that are mine in Christ has changed the way I think and act. I know, in a deeper way, that this is what brings change to others.”
Likewise, the authors stress the need for gospel-centered community in the maturing process. Since we are so often blind to our own weaknesses and failures, we need others to come alongside us and rub up against our rough edges. So many Christians try to manage their sin alone, working hard to keep others from seeing it. Current Evangelicalism is full of “beautiful people” who believe that if others see what they know is on the inside, they would be disgraced and dismissed. Lane and Tripp work hard to de-bunk this assumption and present the opposing view: if believers try to conquer their sin alone, they may win the approval of others, but miss out on the transformation that Christ offers.
The book has almost a Pauline structure: theological truth followed by practical application. If I have one negative thing to say about the book, it is that perhaps it could have been two books. The first five chapters develop the biblical, gospel-centered foundation of the model that makes up the rest of the book. It is these first five chapters that are counter-cultural to much of what is being lived out in modern evangelicalism. I found myself wishing that more time would have been devoted to sitting under the theological weight of the first five chapters.
Heat, Thorns, Cross and Fruit
Nevertheless, How People Change is not primarily about the need for true change. As the title suggests, Lane and Tripp intend nothing less than to assert a gospel-centered process for change. The bulk of the book, therefore, is devoted to the presentation of the authors’ comprehensive model for biblical change based on Jeremiah 17:5-10, where the Lord promises us a fruit-bearing life in the midst of drought when our hearts grow deep in Him.
Their model makes use of vivid, Jeremiah 17 imagery—heat, thorns, cross, and fruit—to help readers picture their current situations, their ungodly responses, Christ’s redemptive work on their behalf, and their new, godly responses, respectively.
One of the most beautiful aspects of their model is its simplicity. It is easy to follow, understand, apply, and teach. After reading it, I was able to see myself and others in light of the model they presented. It is broad enough to apply to the wide spectrum of patterns that might present themselves in a biblical counseling office, pastoral care setting, or personal discipleship. Likewise, this model is as well-suited to individual and group discipleship as to a biblical counseling practice.
A Book to Read, Use and Give
I highly recommend this book. While many in the field build models for change based on their experience and then look for verses to support it, it is clear that Lane and Tripp reversed that process. This book is saturated with biblical references—not just citing verses, but unpacking passages in context to support the themes and model presented.
CCEF, where Lane serves as Executive Director and Tripp serves as adjunct faculty, and New Growth Press, CCEF’s publishing partner, are well respected for publishing materials with solid theological moorings. They certainly did not disappoint in this title. In addition, the authors frequently ask penetrating questions that invite readers to interact with the material and see how their own beliefs and struggles can be seen through a gospel lens.
While reviewing this book, I followed with interest the tweets of an older, very godly friend who was reading it for the first time. The book was revolutionary for him. He was stunned that he had been a Christian for so many years and had never seen the relevance of the gospel in his daily struggles with sin. Like many of us, he knew that salvation was of “of the Lord,” but felt it was his own responsibility to grow in godliness and has always tried to do so as best he knew how. The gospel truths in this book showed him a better way. From the book’s title through the specific case-studies presented in the closing two chapters, How People Change is a call to the transformation we so desperately long to see in our own lives—and in the lives of those to whom we minister.
This review was originally written for and published on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website.