According to Scripture, our root problem is not an external, behavioral problem—it’s a problem of the heart. This is why all the counterfeit remedies inevitably leave us unchanged and in denial or despair, because they all bypass the heart.
Repentance: Turning Heart Affections Away from Idols
The reason our hearts are not more transformed is because we have allowed them to be captured by idols that steal our affection away from God. The apostle John makes this point in the very last verse of 1 John. Here the apostle purposefully concludes his masterful 105-verse letter on how to live in vital fellowship with Christ, with these words: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
Repenting of our idolatry actually sums up what true spirituality really is. Because God created man to be a worshiper, we are always worshiping something, whether we realize it or not. This is why we should always see the essential character of our sin as heart idolatry. The first and second commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:3-4), are meant to remind us of the very dangerous and natural tendency we all have to worship idols.
An idol is making something or someone other than Jesus Christ our true source of happiness or fulfillment. We all have to live for something. We all have a “personal center,” an ultimate value through which we see all of life. For some of us it is approval, reputation, or success. For others it is comfort or control, pleasure or power. For some it is possessions or sex or money or a relationship.
Idols can even be good causes, such as making an impact or having a happy home or a good marriage or obedient children. What makes something an idol is that we believe our lives are meaningless without it.
Whatever we live for has great power over us. If someone blocks our idol from us, we can be enraged with anger. If our idol is threatened, we can be paralyzed with fear. If we lose our idol, we can be driven into utter despair. This is because the idols we worship give us our sense of worth or righteousness. When we allow the affections of our hearts to be captured by such idols, the outcome is always the same—a lack of God’s transforming power and presence in our lives.
So repentance should not be seen as merely changing our external behavior but primarily as a willingness to pull our heart affections and trust away from our idols. The great English theologian John Owen teaches that one of the reasons we don’t experience more of God’s power and presence in our lives is because we have not sufficiently studied the idolatries of our own hearts.
For years I confessed to God my recurring sin of anxiety that was destroying me physically. But I saw very little change until I began to see and repent of the internal sin of idolatry that was the root of the external sin of worry. To my surprise, I discovered that my core problem was not primarily the external sin of worry but the internal, idolatrous sin of seeking the approval of others as the source of my righteousness or worth.
The great evangelist George Whitefield taught that to know God’s power, we must learn not only what it means to repent of our sins but also to repent of our righteousness. The late John Gerstner is reported to have said, “It is not so much our sins that keep us from God as our damnable good works.”
Once we have identified a heart idol, repentance involves not only confessing it, but also taking radical action against it, sapping the life-dominating power it has over us. In Romans 13:14 (ESV), Paul writes, “Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” All that is idolatrous to us must have its vivid appeal drained away.
But repentance is only half of our responsibility in transformation. It’s the negative, defensive side of the equation. We turn now to the positive, offensive strategy—faith in the gospel.
Faith: Turning Heart Affections to Jesus Christ
The reason Jesus commands us to repent and believe the gospel is because he knows that faith in the gospel is the mysterious means God ordains through which the power of his victory as our king is meant to flow in and through our lives and our churches. The good news of the kingdom is that our king has won a marvelous victory for us. Through his sinless life, sacrificial death as our substitute, resurrection, and ascension, he has not only conquered death for us, removing its penalty, but he has also conquered sin’s power over us.
As our warrior-king, he has entered into battle against all the enemy forces (the world, the flesh, and the devil) that wage war against our souls, and he has conquered their reigning power over us forever. Now, through repentance and faith, God means for us to tap into the powerful victory of our king so that we might be transformed into true worshipers of God and more authentic lovers of people.
The reason God calls us to pull our affections off our heart idols through repentance is so that we can place those same affections on Jesus Christ through faith. The apostle Paul has this positive side of the change equation in mind when he writes, “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:1-2).
In Paul’s thought, the process of gospel transformation always involves this ongoing, two-fold dynamic of repentance and faith. Through repentance we are always to be pulling our affections off of our idols. Through faith we are always to be placing our affections on Christ.
The Puritans describe this concept of setting our affections on Christ as developing spiritual-mindedness. They teach that we must be even more radical about setting our affections on Christ than we are about removing our affections from our idols. Robert Murray McCheyne puts it well when he says, “Do not take up your time so much with studying your own heart as with studying Christ’s heart. For one look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.”
In Galatians 6:14, Paul gives us a fascinating glimpse into how his faith in the gospel transformed him, when he writes, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
John Stott writes,
Paul’s whole world was in orbit around the cross. It filled his vision, illumined his life, warmed his spirit. He “gloried” in it. It meant more to him than anything else. This Greek word translated here as “boast” has no exact equivalent in English. It means to glory in, trust in, rejoice in, revel in, live for. In a word, our glory is our obsession.
Some of us are obsessed with gaining approval or recognition. Others are obsessed with experiencing comfort or pleasure or happiness. Some are obsessed with gaining control or power or possessions, or with building a reputation or gaining success as the world defines it.
The apostle Paul was also obsessed. But his obsession was with Christ and the cross. In his obsession with the cross, Paul experienced the transforming power of the gospel to crucify the dominating power of his sinful nature and the idolatrous lure of the world.
Only when we learn how to glory in the cross and not in our idols will we ever experience the true liberating power of the gospel. Only when Jesus Christ becomes more attractive to us than the pleasures of sin will our hearts ever be set free. The enslaving power of sin will never dissipate until a greater affection of the heart replaces it. This is why we must learn to pray like the old hymn writer William Cowper:
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne
And worship only Thee.
 George Whitefield, “The Method of Grace” in George Whitefield’s Sermons (New Ipswich, NH: Pietan Publications, 1976), 2:108-122.
 Robert Murray McCheyne, Memoirs of McCheyne: Including His Letter and Messages, Andrew Bonar, ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1947), 93.
 John Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986), 349.
 William Cowper and John Newton, “O for a Closer Walk with God” in Trinity Hymnal (Philadelphia, PA: Great Commission Publications, 1990), 534.
Adapted from the article “True Spirituality: The Transforming Power of the Gospel,” copyright © Steven L. Childers. Used by permission of Global Church Advancement, www.GCA.cc.