When You Really Need to Change: Jesus and the Way to Personal Transformation

Then Jesus told him, “See that you don’t tell anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed, as a testimony to them.” (Matthew 8:4)

At one time or another we all have this in common with the leper: We need to change.

Through circumstances, introspection, or shame, we become acutely aware that something is wrong with us — something that alienates us from God, from others, and even from ourselves.

The Bible calls it sin. Sin is the “missing of the mark” (literally); it is the thing inside of us that ensures that no matter how hard we try, on some fundamental level we don’t get it right.

We’re often not even sure what “it” is.

But we know we need to be changed. We need to be healed.

As it was for the leper, so it is for us: we find ourselves in need of a help we are powerless to give ourselves.

As Paul vividly pictures this in Romans 7:

For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am made out of flesh, sold into sin’s power. For I do not understand what I am doing, because I do not practice what I want to do, but I do what I hate. (Romans 7:14-15)

Cosmic Shift: Jesus and the Changing of the Guard

Many have pointed out that in commanding the leper to present himself to the priest and be declared ceremonially clean, Jesus showed respect for the Mosaic law.

(The “Mosaic law” is the law of Moses, the covenant law given to Israel during Moses’ time and recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.)

It’s true; he did. Jesus viewed the law as given by his Father. He honored and fulfilled it.

However, I believe that in this story, he was also sending a message. With the coming of Jesus, a cosmic changing of the guard took place. The old covenant, with its attendant law, was on its way out (see the entire book of Hebrews).

Jesus was here to usher in a new one.

When the leper went back to the priests who had previously inspected him, quarantined him, and finally declared him ritually unclean in accordance with the Mosaic law, he was demonstrating in his own body that “one greater than Moses is here.”

The priests had already faced the disease in this man’s body. They had examined it, identified it, and then done the only thing law can do when faced with an undeniable diagnosis: they put a label on it, condemned it, and sent it away to face the consequences.

What Doesn’t Work

The leper was dealing with a disease. But the same dynamics are at work when we try to overcome sin, in whatever form it takes in our lives.

This is one reason the Mosaic law dealt both with moral issues of sin and with ritual issues of disease and uncleanness. One is a picture of the other. Taken together, the whole law points forward to what Jesus would eventually do in his holistic work of forgiving, healing, sanctifying, transforming, and resurrecting us.

So what DOESN’T work, when we find ourselves desperate to change?

Going to the law.

Burying ourselves in shame.

Constantly reminding ourselves of what we should be but are not does not give us the power to change.

Making resolutions based on law will not empower us to keep them.

What the Law Is Good At …

As it was in Jesus’ day, the law is good at diagnosing problems.

The more we examine the laws and ways of God, the clearer we’ll get on how we don’t measure up.

What should we say then? Is the law sin? Absolutely not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin if it were not for the law. For example, I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, Do not covet. (Romans 7:7)

It seems like a cruel trick. We want to be better, so we run to the law to tell us how. And instead, we end up finding out that we’re spiritual lepers — diseased and incurable.

Once I was alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. The commandment that was meant for life resulted in death for me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me, and through it killed me. (Romans 7:9-11)

So what does work?

Coming to Jesus.

Specifically, coming to Jesus in faith.

We Are Already Healed

At this point you may be crying foul, because you’ve tried coming to Jesus and you still have a problem. You’re not “healed” of your sin; you’re not changed.

I get it. Been there and done that. And I have really, really good news.

But for us to grasp that good news, there are a few things we need to get clear about.

First, we are already healed.

When the leper came to Jesus with his question, “If you are willing,” he didn’t know what the answer would be. He didn’t know if Jesus wanted to heal him.

By contrast, we come to Jesus with that first, foundational question already answered. Yes, Jesus wants to free us from our sin. He wants to cleanse us and transform our lives.

We know this, because we live on the other side of the cross. Jesus has already done it.

We are already healed, because Jesus has already died.

And we can experience that truth in our lives — if we’re willing to believe, and to grasp hold of what he’s done.

Transformation by Faith

As it turns out, the implications of the leper’s story in Matthew 8 are explored in great depth in the book of Romans.

Romans 3-8 are some of the most life-changing chapters in the entire Bible because they bring us here: to this moment of encounter with Jesus where we learn that what he did on the cross was for us, that we can grasp it by faith, and that there are no barriers left between us and God — between us and spiritual healing, which is the beginning point of all healing and all restoration.

I’m not going to quote all five chapters here (go read them at the link above), but thankfully, Paul includes a few verses that encapsulate the message of the whole thing.

For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. If those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made empty and the promise is canceled. (Romans 4:13-14)

This last part is already familiar to us: if the promise — of forgiveness, transformation, and eternal life in our case; Abraham’s promise was simply that he would father nations — depends on us, then it won’t do us any good.

We can’t keep the law, and the law can’t help us.

But if it doesn’t depend on us, if it depends on God, and all we have to do is trust him for it, then we’re good. The promise is a sure thing.

In fact, God credits our faith — our belief, our trust, and our commitment to walk with him — as righteousness (Romans 4:22).

In God’s view, faith = righteousness.

“But that’s not right,” you might say. “Faith isn’t righteousness. Just because I believe I’m righteous doesn’t mean I am.”

That would be true except for one thing: God is the creator. What he says, is.

He believed in God, who gives life to the dead and calls things into existence that do not exist. (Romans 4:17)

By the way, the “faith” required of us is not great faith. It’s not perfect, impeccable, unwavering, mountain-moving faith. Look at Abraham, the liar and cheat. Look at Peter, the doubter and denier.

All we need is a choice to trust. And we need to keep coming back to that choice when we fall away, as we will and do.

At some point, for us to continue insisting that we are sinners, that we’re not changed, that God hasn’t helped, that we’re still stuck, that we’re not forgiven/clean/healed, is for us to call God a liar.

We are already healed. We are already made clean, righteous, and free from sin.

We need to start grasping that.

It Isn’t Based on You

Second, we need to grasp that our healing isn’t based on us. It’s not based on our experience, on our moment of “inviting Jesus into our heart,” on our commitments and consecrations and high standards, or on the triumph we experienced last week.

(Or, for that matter, on the failure we experienced last week.)

It’s CERTAINLY not based on us “crucifying the flesh,” “dying to self,” or otherwise achieving victory over sin by striving to attain a special higher spiritual state.

It’s based on what Jesus did in the cross.

How does all that work? What exactly DID Jesus do in the cross?

I don’t know.

He atoned. Substituted. Satisfied death. Conquered the devil. Took our flesh and killed it. Took our sin and buried it. Washed us in the blood. He redeemed us from the law, the curse, and death.

I don’t know how he did all that. It’s a mystery.

But he did it, and the Bible says it resulted in me and you being set free from sin.

Forgiven, cleansed, healed.

It doesn’t depend on you or me. It depends on something that happened 2000 years ago.

Oh, and one other thing: Jesus didn’t just go to the cross for us, he went to the cross with us. In some mystical way, we got joined to him in his death. When he died, we died; when he was raised, we were raised.

So if we receive that, by faith, what does the Bible say about our current condition?

How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:2-11)

The next few verses in Romans 6 go on to talk about choices we must make to live this out daily. We do have a choice: we can continue living in sin if we want to. But we don’t have to. We ARE free.

In fact, we are commanded to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God.

I suspect the journey of practical, manifested transformation will look a bit different in every life, but I know this: we won’t get there if we start with believing Jesus’ work wasn’t enough and that we have to strive our way to perfection.

The best way to practically stop living in sin is to begin by considering ourselves dead to it and alive to God, not based on anything we did, but based on what Jesus did and included us in.

What This Actually Looks Like

I sometimes refer to this as “the war of confession.” I don’t think we’re in a battle against sin anymore so much as we’re in a battle to believe. We’re in a battle to stand on faith.

For me, this gets super practical when temptation comes up, or when I realize that I’m sinning.

Rather than pray, “Lord, please give me strength to resist this temptation! Please help me! Please set me free! Please forgive me!” — as though he hasn’t already done all of that — I pray, “Lord, thank you for setting me free from this. Thank you that I’m dead to this sin. Thank you that this temptation has no power over me. Thank you for cleansing me; I receive your forgiveness. Thank you for making me alive to God. I choose to yield to you right now, Holy Spirit.”

What I find is that when I face sin and temptation from a place of victory — of being already healed — I have power over it.

When I face sin from a place of faith, I find out that I’m dead to sin.

Do I still need to walk away from temptation? Of course.

Do I still mess up and ask God to forgive me? Yes. But I ask in faith, not in doubt, as though perhaps God will withhold it this time.

Is accountability still good and useful? Yep — the fellowship of redeemed people and the testimony of the Word of God are powerful gifts. But I don’t come to them as a leper who needs healing. I come to them as one who is healed.

For the leper, the law was able to put a label on his problem, condemn him, and send him away to face the consequences. Jesus does the opposite. He identifies the problem, removes it from us, deals with the consequences, and sets us free.

Truly free.


I would love to hear from you. Scroll down to leave a comment below!


This is Part 101 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash



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