When’s the last time you saw a picture or statue of Abraham Lincoln? Whenever it was, you knew two things about it: First, it was very much like him in its appearance, but second, the real Abraham Lincoln was much more than the image of him that you were looking at.
The Bible says that God made human beings in His image, and we also are like God in some important ways, but God is also much more than we are.
So in what ways are we like God? I will suggest four: God is intelligent, He has emotions, He has a moral sense, and He has a free will—and we also have these characteristics, though in us they are much more limited.
The problem is that in us, these qualities have been distorted by sin. Thus, our intelligence has made it possible for us to produce weapons that can kill thousands of people, and our emotional and moral natures are so warped that we think this is OK. We “call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
But this is not what God intended when He created us.
So when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, why didn’t He destroy them and start over? That’s what an artist does when a painting he’s working on doesn’t turn out the way he intended. He throws away the canvas and starts over. God had a perfect right to do that with Adam and Eve, because He told them that if they disobeyed Him, they would die. But God loved Adam and Eve, and He wanted a relationship, not only with them but with all their descendants.
So God was faced with a catch-22: He loved the humans He had created, but He had to impose the death penalty they had incurred.
Fortunately, God had a solution to this problem. He took the penalty upon Himself. Jesus paid that penalty when He died on the cross. And Jesus didn’t die just for Adam and Eve. He took upon Himself the penalty for the sins of every human being who has ever lived, including you and me!
However, God still had a problem: He needed to repair the damage that sin had done to our minds. He needed to restore our intelligence, our emotions, our moral sense, and our free will to what they were when He created us. But how?
The problem is that we love the wrong things we do. We feel perfectly justified when we get mad and speak harshly to others. We enjoy abusing our bodies with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and the wrong kinds of food. We’ll sacrifice our family relationships in order to obtain success, wealth, and political power. At the core of our being, we love evil.
Being God, He could force us to choose His way of life, but if He did that, He would violate our free will. Our love for Him would then be meaningless, because true love can only be given. It can’t be forced. But we have no inclination to choose God and His way of life, because they seem foolish to us (1 Corinthians 2:14).
Does this mean we’re locked into our distorted thinking with no way out? The answer is Yes—unless we can get help from outside ourselves. Fortunately, God assigned the Holy Spirit the task of providing us that outside help.
Holy Spirit to the rescue
The first thing the Holy Spirit has to do is get our attention. He has to create within us a sense of need, a void that isn’t being filled any other way. We’re very aware of the void, and we’re trying to fill it with all the things we love that are actually harming us. Fortunately, God’s Spirit is very persistent. If one way of getting our attention doesn’t work, He’ll try something else and something else until we finally stop to listen.
This part of the Holy Spirit’s work is called “conviction.” Jesus said that when the Holy Spirit comes to us, “he will convict [us] of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8; italics added).
Some people never respond to the Holy Spirit’s conviction, but a marvelous change happens in the minds of those who do. Suddenly, the things that didn’t make any sense at all now do. It’s like a light going on in their heads: Oh, yes, that’s right! Why hadn’t I seen it that way before?
The apostle Paul described this change in the way we think. He said, “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:23–25).
Christians have a word for this change in the way we understand spiritual things. It’s called “conversion.” Jesus spoke about this in a conversation He had one night with a man named Nicodemus. Jesus said, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). We sometimes call it the “new birth.” And Jesus said that the Holy Spirit is the one who brings it about in us (verse 8).
Power to overcome
There’s still a huge problem, though. At this point God’s way of life makes sense to us—but we haven’t the slightest ability to live it. The reason is that our old ways of thinking and believing are still in our heads, and they’re in conflict with the new way of thinking that God gives us. This is a very frustrating experience—wanting to change the way we live yet being unable to do so.
The apostle Paul knew all about the frustration. He said, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. . . . For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out” (Romans 7:15, 18).
Fortunately, God has a fix for that problem, too, and it’s another part of conversion. God not only helps us want to do right, He gives the power to do it. Paul commented on this remarkable change when he said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philipppians 4:13, NKJV).* In another place he spoke about God’s “power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20).
This power is provided to us by the Holy Spirit. Paul said that “the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2). That’s another part of conversion.
Let’s do a brief review.
In a way that’s a mystery to us, God’s Holy Spirit touches our minds and impresses us of the changes we need in our ways of thinking and doing. He won’t force this change upon us, but He will keep reminding us that we need it. That’s conviction.
When we accept our need of this change, the Holy Spirit takes the next step called conversion, which has two parts. In the first part, the Holy Spirit doesn’t just remind us that we need a change in our thinking. He actually changes the way we think. The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel spoke of this as having “a new heart” (Ezekiel 36:26). In the second part of conversion, the Holy Spirit gives us the power to live in harmony with that new heart.
However, I would be remiss if I left you with the idea that from the moment people are converted they’re able to live God’s way of life perfectly. We do slip and fall, but we mustn’t get discouraged! We just need to tell God what happened, tell Him we’re sorry it happened, and ask Him to forgive us. I can assure you that He will. That’s what He longs to do. Jesus died on the cross so He’d have the right to forgive us.
How about you?
Are you one of those people who’s always thought the Christian way of life was foolish? Join the crowd! There are lots of people like that. But have you had the nagging feeling lately that something’s missing in your life, that there has to be a better way? That’s the Holy Spirit reaching out to you, convicting you.
I invite you to say, “Holy Spirit, I give you permission to take the next step and actually change the way I think.” Then see what happens.
Or perhaps you’ve already accepted this new way of thinking, and now you’re struggling to live in harmony with it. Some days it’s up, and some days it’s down. Talk to God about that. First, thank Him that He’s placed this new way of thinking in your mind. Then ask Him to forgive you for the wrong things you’ve done. Then ask Him to help you live in harmony with His way of life.
If you’ve been thinking you’re too sinful for God to forgive you, I want to assure you that’s a lie that Satan wants you to believe, not God. His Holy Spirit won’t abandon you just because you slipped and fell! Hang in with Him, and He’ll hang in with you. The changes will be gradual, but they will happen. That’s what the Holy Spirit will do for you.