“Is Spiritual Transformation Really Possible? by Thomas A. Tarrants, III, D. Min. (repentance, faith, redemption)

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Is Spiritual Transformation Really Possible?

by Thomas A. Tarrants, III, D.Min.
President Emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute

source: From the Fall 2019 issue of Knowing & Doing: C.S. Lewis Institute

My answer to the question above is an emphatic yes! Let me briefly tell you a story that illustrates why.

  In June of this year, I retired as vice president of the C.S. Lewis Institute and director of the Washington Area C.S. Lewis Fellows program, a role I had filled for nine years. Prior to that, I had served for twelve years as president. Before coming to the Institute, I was copastor of an interracial church and, even earlier, was in campus ministry. That profile sounds normal enough.
  But here’s the backstory. I was a white teenager in the deep South who came of age in the early 1960s, just as the civil rights movement was gathering momentum. Society was in turmoil as the federal government implemented court-ordered desegregation plans in the public schools. I became very angry about the changes in my high school and began to read racist, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in literature that was being circulated on campus. Soon I met those who were distributing the material. This led to a process of indoctrination into far-right ideology that would eventually have tragic consequences for me and others.

  My anger grew into hatred for black people, Jews, liberals, and communists — people I saw as enemies of God, America, and the southern way of life. By my early twenties, my hatred had led me to become involved with the most violent right-wing terrorist organization in America at the time, Mississippi’s White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. One night, an accomplice and I were ambushed by a police SWAT team as we attempted to bomb the home of a Jewish businessman. My accomplice was killed, and I was so badly wounded that doctors gave me only forty-five minutes to live.

  Miraculously I survived my injuries and was later tried and sentenced to thirty years in prison. But I had learned nothing from my experiences; about six months after entering prison, I escaped with two other inmates, intending to resume my activities. But a couple of days later, another SWAT team found me and my accomplices, one of whom was killed in the barrage of gunfire. Had the man who was killed not relieved me early from lookout duty, I would have been the one who died.

  Back in prison, I was confined to a six-by-nine-foot cell in the maximum security unit. To escape the boredom of being locked up alone twenty-four hours a day, I began to read almost continuously. At first, it was racist, anti-Semitic books, which reinforced my extremist beliefs. Then, unexpectedly, my interest shifted to classical philosophy — Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. This led to an intellectual awakening and a search for truth and self-understanding that eventually took me to the New Testament. Through reading the Gospels, I discovered the truth I was seeking in the person of Jesus Christ. I was particularly stuck when I read, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matt.16:26).1 Under conviction of my sins, I was brought to repentance and faith and trusted my life to Christ in wholehearted surrender.

  The next morning, I awoke with three strong desires in my heart: to read the Bible, to pray, and to live for God. As the apostle Paul had said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). These desires were characteristic of that change. ( : LW )

And so was the love that replaced racial and ethnic hatred in my heart. Hours of daily Bible reading fed these changes and helped fuel the beginnings of spiritual transformation. It also stimulated the desire for a deeper understanding of the Christian faith and an interest in theology and apologetics. It was here that I first encountered the works of C.S. Lewis — books such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, The Problem of Pain, among others. The works of Lewis were formative in my thinking and would continue to be so for many years to come. Other writers also had a major impact on me — Louis Berkhof, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, J.I. Packer, John Stott, Andrew Murray, Thomas à Kempis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to name a few. Two years of extensive daily Bible reading and the study of Christian classics helped me develop a solid foundation in the faith.

  Fast forwarding a bit, after serving eight years in prison, a near miraculous set of circumstances opened the door for me to be released from prison to attend the University of Mississippi. At the age of twenty-nine, I was now eager to prepare myself to serve God in some way, and I gave myself to my studies with diligence. I also became part of a good church, where I could experience weekly worship, teaching, and fellowship. This helped accelerate my spiritual growth. Later I moved to the Washington, D.C., area and eventually went to seminary, earning a master’s degree and later a doctoral degree. Along the way, doors opened for me to serve God in campus ministry, then pastoral ministry, and finally at the C.S. Lewis Institute.

  It has been almost fifty years since I met Jesus in that prison cell. Over those years, God has been steadily working in my life, helping me to change — to become more like Jesus. It hasn’t been quick, and it hasn’t always been easy. There have been temptations, trials and tribulations, some of which I overcame and others I failed. There have been ups and downs, twists and turns along the way. And there have been painful sorrows to endure. But through it all, there have been many joys and blessings from God’s generous hand. His grace has truly been sufficient for me. And He has patiently, lovingly kept calling me to “come further up, come further in.” I still have a long way to go, for it is a lifelong journey, but I am thankful for the progress made thus far by God’s grace. That is why I can say without hesitation that spiritual transformation is certainly possible. Not only is it possible; it is unquestionably God’s agenda for each of His children, for He intends that we “be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29).
So in spite of the challenges and difficulties of the transformation process,

we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:17–18)

  Such transformation is not just for the few. It is for everyone who really wants it, even the worst of people, as I once was. History is full of examples of notorious sinners who have been transformed by Jesus Christ. Think of the apostle Paul, a violent religious extremist; Augustine, a pagan philosopher and sex addict; Francis of Assisi, a rich playboy. More recently, C.S. Lewis was a convinced atheist, and Chuck Colson was a ruthless political operative. It is also for ordinary people who have not been saved, including those church people who make professions of faith and believe they are Christians but whose lives have never changed. (This is a major reason throughout history why people don’t believe Christian faith changes people in a positive way.)

  If you long for this — if you really want to become more like Jesus — cry out to God with a sincere heart. He will help you. The first step for everyone is repentance and faith. That is, to recognize and turn from your sins to Jesus Christ and trust Him as your Savior and Lord. He says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). He is the only way to God: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
If you have been born again, your next step is clear: with gratitude to God for His grace and love, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). This means giving yourself to Him wholeheartedly, body and soul, holding back nothing. It is a surrender to God’s love and a commitment to pleasing Him through joyful obedience to His will. This launches the process of transformation, and you will need to reaffirm it daily. The process moves forward as we take the necessary initiative: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). This involves forsaking the values, attitudes, and behaviors of the fallen world and seeking the renewal of our minds through earnest engagement with the Word of God, the Spirit of God and the people of God. Our goal in doing so is to develop the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5–8), our Savior, Lord and great High Priest. And as we walk this path through life with our brothers and sisters in Christ, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). 



Notes:
1  Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are English Standard Version.

Tom Tarrants is President Emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute. After serving twelve years as president and nine years as vice President, he retired from his position as Vice President for Ministry and Director, Washington Area Fellows Program, with CSLI in June 2019.  Tom holds a Master of Divinity Degree, as well as a Doctor of Ministry Degree in Christian Spirituality. He is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Church Alliance and a member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Going forward, Tom will be spending his time writing, mentoring, consulting and traveling. His life story is told in Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love, published by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Recommended Reading:
Thomas A. Tarrants, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation (Thomas Nelson, 2019)

From L.Willows: I am so honored to have personally met Dr. Tarrants through his extensive ministry at the C.S. Lewis Institute and beyond. I have witnessed the strength of his faith, the expanse of its impact and the depth of his humility. I look forward to reading this book.

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“Treasures from C.S. Lewis”, quotes to gather and hold in our hearts.

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Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.”
C.S. Lewis “God In The Dock” (1970)

“There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
C.S. Lewis “Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis” (2006)

“We do not want merely to see beauty . . . We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
C.S. Lewis “Transposition and Other Addresses” (1949)

We are mirrors whose brightness is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.
C.S. Lewis “The Four Loves” (1960)

“Nothing you have not given away will ever really be yours.”
C.S. Lewis “Mere Christianity” (1952)

“The instrument through which you see God is your whole self. And if a man’s self is not kept clean and bright, his glimpse of God will be blurred”
C.S. Lewis  “Mere Christianity” (1952)

The door on which we have been knocking all our lives will open at last.”
C.S. Lewis  “The Weight of Glory” (1949)

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
C.S. Lewis “Mere Christianity”

Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” C.S. Lewis “Mere Christianity” (1952)

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
C.S. Lewis “Mere Christianity” (1952)

“When we lose one blessing, another is often most unexpectedly given in its place.”
C.S. Lewis “Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis” (2008)

Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.”
C.S. Lewis “Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis” (2006)

Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.”
C.S. Lewis “Mere Christianity” (1952)

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen — not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
C.S. Lewis “Is Theology Poetry” (1945)

“Praising, I am Praising, a heart so full” from LWillows

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Praising, I am praising, my heart is so full. When life asked me to walk with a heart of faith bolder and stronger than I had fathomed before, I stepped forward. I did not do it alone. I could not. The strength was not my own. Someone near to me said, “You stepped off of the cliff with one foot out!”. Thinking back, I know now that The Lord was holding the foot that stepped out. He had me all the while.

Our Savior is so merciful. I am in awe of the generosity of Grace. My heart is stretched and then stretched again just to receive all that pours in from His Love. Me, the one with so many words- rendered speechless. Just left with a song, left with armfuls of songs in my heart that have been singing to us all from God that calls to us of His Love. We can only sing the praise back with joy and awe.

Hear the Praise! 

Wonderful Merciful Savior

 

2 Corinthians 12:9, Psalm 34….”A State of Grace”…from LWillows

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The State of Grace

Grace…”The unmerited favor of God, A gift unearned and undeserved.”

The words, “a state of grace” have been in my mind and heart in the past week with a new calling. Last Sunday the Sermon at Alexandria Presbyterian Church was from a scripture reading of Psalm 34 and was titled “Taste and See That the Lord is Good”.

The psalm speaks of a prayer of David,  who after losing thousands of his troops in a battle with Saul was forced to flee and finds himself in the land of Gath, a territory that was dangerous to him from former times; the King would have his head….1 Samuel 21:10-15.

I heard the words of the David’s prayer with an open heart. I felt blessed with the timing of the Sermon; my spirit entered a state of grace as we bowed our heads in prayer at the closing, seeking that The Lord search our own hearts and receive us.

The Pastor had asked, don’t we all feel like David at times? Does life not bring us to face the trials that compel us to call out for God’s Help as David did. In line 18, the Psalm says.. “The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit”.

Some of The Pastor Chris’s words that remained like bells ringing out the truth for me were…..

“Faith is not strength. Faith is weakness holding on to strength”.  

Then as I was filled with renewal and healing he continued and said, “Suffering will either make you sweeter or more bitter!”.

I smiled with a big inner cheer. Yes! This is so true. Later in the sermon he said,

“You can be wounded and not destroyed. Every-time that something happens that is (a trial) your faith grows stronger.” (Chris Sicks, Pastor of Mercy, Alexandria Presbyterian Church, Alexandria, VA. July 30, 2017)

Psalm 34
Taste and See That the Lord Is Good
Of David, when he changed his behavior before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.

1 I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
3 Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together!

4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
5 Those who look to him are radiant,
and their faces shall never be ashamed.
6 This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him
and saved him out of all his troubles.
7 The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.

8 Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
9 Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints,
for those who fear him have no lack!
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger;
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

11 Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12 What man is there who desires life
and loves many days, that he may see good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil
and your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Turn away from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.

15 The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous
and his ears toward their cry.
16 The face of the Lord is against those who do evil,
to cut off the memory of them from the earth.
17 When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears
and delivers them out of all their troubles.
18 The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit.

19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all.
20 He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
21 Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.