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Okay, I am forewarning you upfront on this one.  I want to stir the pot a bit; get controversial.

Lately I have been hearing a lot of negative comments about "Behavioral Modification."  I have been told that it is unscriptural to tell people to modify their behavior. It flies in the face of grace and is a gospel of works. I especially hear it in the context of counseling somebody. 

It sounds something like this: "Never tell a person to change their behavior; their actions or thoughts." I gather from this advice that I should never tell somebody to stop doing this or that; to stop sinning in deed or thought. I don't understand. My Bible (and yours) is full of admonitions to: Put off, put on, stop offering yourself to sin, be more gentle, more humble, more loving, more honest; to press on, strain forward. Read Colosians 3:12-17, Romans 6:12,13, Philippians 3:12-16.

I am reminded of the person who said they had learned to speak French but without the verbs. You can't speak any language without verbs, and you can't live the Christian life without verbs (action words).

I have been told I am giving people unhealthy and unbiblical counsel when I ask them to stop sinning or behave differently. That's asking for superficial "behavior modification." What's wrong with asking someone to modify their behavior to be more Christlike?

Didn't Jesus tell the man in John 5 not to sin anymore? Read the Sermon on the Mount and notice all the do's and don'ts.

Here is where I think the disconnect is.  The issue is not asking somebody to change (modify their behavior, conduct, action, thinking). The issue is what (who) is motivating them to change, and where is the power coming from to change?

The people ranting about the wrongness of preaching behavior modification are assuming (big assumption here) that we are asking a person to change in order to feel better, have a nicer life, be free from the affects of sin and personal pain. The assumption is also being made that we are asking this person to pull themselves up by their own proverbial boot straps and, in essence, change themselves.

Here is what I think, and I want to hear from you and have you enter into some healthy dialogue here; not in an email to me, but by commenting here on this blog so we can get a discussion thread going.

The Bible commands us as Christians to change and be conformed to the image of His dear son (Romans 8:29)

Two issues that are overlooked are:

  1. Purpose- Am I seeking to change for my personal benefit or to please and obey the one who purchased me through his death on the cross? Is it for my honor, or His, for my glory or His, for my purposes or His? It should be all about Jesus, not all about me!

  2. Power- Jesus makes it abundantly clear in John 15 that without Him we can do nothing. We can't change ourselves, we can't have victory over sin, we can't be more kind, more gentle, more patient, more anything. Author Fred Smith says it well when he says, "Remember the power comes through you not from you; we are the pipe, He is the pump."

Every New Testament passage requiring behavior modification is enveloped with the wonderful truth of our position in Christ and the power of the resurrection. Look closely at Romans 6:1-13 in this regard.

So I feel complete biblical freedom to tell people they need to modify their behavior if they have been saved by Jesus and belong to Him. But, I present this challenge in the context of purpose and power.

It is not a matter of grace or personal responsibility, but grace with personal responsibility.  We always get into trouble when we pit one biblical truth against another instead of embracing them both. Luther described it as "Rightly dividing Law and Gospel."

Have at it; agree or disagree and tell me where I am wrong, if you feel I am.


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Reader Comments (2)

I don't disagree with your thoughts on this subject. As a disciple of Christ, shouldn't I want nothing more than to see my life change to be more like Him? Having someone encourage me in this is really only encouraging me to be a better disciple. I hope the day never comes that I look at my life and can't find a single thing to draw me closer to Him. Continue to encourage us to modify our behavior and every other area that separates us from the deep relationship Christ wants us to have with him.
July 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTravis
Dave, as a child of the 80's, I think Gen X'ers shutter when hearing those words: "Behavior Modification". I grew up in a conservative baptist church and though my parents did a great job at home, I always felt like my church--rules or behavior was the focal point. Unintentionally or not it rotated towards putting the focus on man as the mediator instead of Jesus. The way you are explaining it could be a bit dangerous depending on your audience. The default of the human heart believes we earn or work our way towards things such as God. We are long on law and short on grace in our fallibility. So I appreciate more of the emphasis on Grace and it should stay there for me because that's where my unbelief creeps in the most--the undeserved gift of grace. When I grasp grace more, I feel free to behave more Christ-like not feel pressured to.

Behavior Modification reminds me a little bit of the "chicken or the egg" illustration we use in business. What comes first? We obey Christ because he commands us to yes but we do it because we have to or because we get to? It is all about the motivation. I don't think the law motivates, but grace does. Interesting how many Gen-X pastors these days preach "grace and grace alone soooooo well. Perhaps we have lost balance & have started to go too far in that direction? For example, you've seen the Tullian Tchividjian / Elyse Fitzpatrick craziness this past year from the Christian Watchdogs claiming they are antinomian which says the law has no place at all. I don't believe they are but because they are so public about being grace addicts, it makes others uncomfortable. Scripture is pretty clear we aren't to sin more that grace may abound. If we don't have a healthy understanding of our position in Christ & his power then legalism abounds (abuse of behavior modification) or you get the Osteen prosperity gospel which puts pressure that your faith must be strong or positive to gain favor with Christ.

Thanks, Jeff (Twitter handle: @JRohmeo)
July 3, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Rohm

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