Gospel-Centered Change: A Review of “Christ Formed In You” by Brian Hedges

How do people change? I talk to people on a regular basis who say they want to change, who have “tried everything,” and yet remained unmoved. How do I change? When I think about my own persistent struggles, sins, and weaknesses I know that I want to change, and yet far too often I find myself stuck in the same places. How do people change? Brian Hedges has an answer for us and if it seems like an obvious answer its one we actually still fail to apply. Hedges believes that the key to transformation is the gospel. He writes both comprehensively and comprehensibly about the gospel for transformation in his book Christ Formed In You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change. The book is a great resource on the process of sanctification, the reality of God’s part in our transformation and the responsibility we have to change. But more than anything else the book is a constant reminder that Christians need to apply the gospel regularly to every area of their lives for change.

“The goal of this book,” writes Hedges,” is to explain where the process of transformation fits and how it happens in the Christian life” (20). “Where it fits” is really the subject of part one, the first five chapters. “How it happens” takes up parts two and three. But ultimately Hedges wants to highlight for us that transformation is only possible by means of the gospel. “My central claim in Christ Formed In You is that it is God’s purpose to change us by progressively making us more like Jesus, and that this happens only as we understand and apply the gospel to our lives” (22). The author truly believes, along with Tim Keller, that we “never get ‘beyond the gospel’ in our Christian life to something more ‘advanced'”(22).

In fact so committed to this assertion is Hedges that he spends a whole chapter unpacking the content of the gospel and two more chapters examining specific elements of it as they apply to our lives, namely justification and sanctification. Though part one is where the so-called heavy theological work happens it is important to the work as a whole. Without clearly understanding this gospel message and how it relates to our lives we will fail to be transformed at all. As Hedges writes, “You will never get traction in your transformation until your feet are firmly planted in the freedom of God’s justifying grace in Christ” (63).

What makes this book so helpful is the stress that Hedges constantly keeps on the priority of the gospel. If we don’t keep this gospel before us we will constantly be frustrated in our growth, or worse we will grow into something we do not desire to be. Taking from the start we must understand the goal of our transformation in light of the gospel. Far too often, even within the church, we see the goal of transformation as nothing more than behavior management. The heart must be changed, says Hedges. Furthermore, and more foundationally perhaps, Hedges points out that the ultimate goal is that we become more like Jesus. When we understand the gospel clearly we see more clearly the goal that is in mind for our transformation. Hedges writes:

To best understand and fully experience the transforming power of the gospel, we must begin with the end in mind. What is God’s ultimate goal in saving and changing us? To answer this we need to grasp why God created us in the first place, what has been lost by human sin, and what God through Christ and the Spirit has done and is doing about it. In other words, we need to frame our concerns about personal change in the larger story of God’s saving work, the story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. (29)

The gospel helps us to frame the goal properly so that we are not shooting for some superficial or inferior goal of change. The gospel won’t let us settle for anything less than Christlikeness. “The acid test of all spiritual formation is this: Are you becoming more like Jesus” (41)?

When it comes to pursuing actual change, building on that foundation so-to-speak, Hedges turns us to the classic sanctification distinction of mortification and vivification. We must kill sin and we must grow in grace. Chapter 7 on killing sin was particularly helpful for the way in which Hedges explicates terminology. While many speak of “killing sin” so few unpack that. Hedges gives us not just a useful definition but an honest one too. He writes:

The imagery of mortification is intended…to communicate the vehemence, enmity, and total-war mentality we must have toward sin. Mortification is not a once-for-all act, like justification. It is an inseparable component of our ongoing transformation, which as we have learned, is a process that continues throughout our lives. We “put sin to death,” therefore, whenever we consciously recognize sin for the implacable enemy it is, habitually fighting its impulses, and weakening its power in our lives – a little bit at a time, day after day, every day, for the rest of our lives. (135)

He adds to this helpful definition a list of ten things we can do to help mortify our sin. The book is very balanced in both weighty theology and practical usefulness, and on this topic particularly Hedges offers us much help.

It’s clear that Hedges has read a great deal of material in preparation for this book. He demonstrates a vast knowledge of the writings of the Puritans. His work bears the fingerprints of John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. He has also read great modern theologians like Sinclair Ferguson and John Piper and his work is littered not simply with quotes but with whole theological formulations that represent a man well read and thoroughly thoughtful. By taking the very best and most useful discussions from a plethora of theologians across the ages Hedges has compiled for us a book that is both comprehensive in scope and comprehensible in style, always reminding us that the gospel is at the heart of our change.

One line that seems to permeate chapter after chapter of the book states plainly “we pursue holiness from grace, not for grace.” If we are going to change at all it must be because we have grasped and are applying the gospel to our lives. I commend this book to you as a wonderful resource for balancing your walk between legalism and licence, a tool to help disciple you and assist you in sanctification. The gospel is what changes us, Brian Hedges reminds us of that.

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