3 Aug 2009

Review: How People Change

Submitted by Paul Brown

I picked up How People Change by Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp to help me prepare for a message that I did for the 2009 Regeneration retreat entitled "Gospel Grace to Overcome Sin and Grow in Godliness". I think I originally heard of the book through some blog(s) in the Reformed stream that I read, and when I saw it recommended in Mars Hill Church-Seattle's Leader Training materials—a missional church not given to atta-boy every book from the Reformed camp—I guessed that it would be a great resource.

How People Change turned out to be even better than I expected. In the first few chapters, the authors earned my respect as men who are committed to the power of the gospel to change lives and who are familiar with the human heart, both from their own experience and from counseling others. The first five chapters lay the groundwork for the model of change that is presented in the remaining chapters. Lane and Tripp work hard to help the reader see that the Christian faith is immensely more than just a "get out of Hell free" card. Rather, the gospel is the power of God for our present life, and union with Christ is both how we receive that power and the purpose for which the power is given.

After these introductory chapters, the book moves to a series of chapters that explain a framework for understanding and pursuing change. The basic model is Heat → Thorns → Cross → Fruit → (repeat). Heat is the difficulty and struggle of everyday life as fallen people in a fallen world. Life constantly brings us frustration and difficulty, and we start by recognizing that and paying attention to how we respond. Life's circumstances don't cause us to sin, but often they are the occasion for sin as we respond to circumstances in wrong ways.

That brings us to the second phase of Lane and Tripp's model: Thorns. Thorns are the wrong, sinful ways that we respond to life. That may be frustration, anger, withdrawal, bitterness, self-reliance, and so on. What How People Change presses us to do is to go beyond the external sin that arises to examine our hearts and see what internal sin there is that is causing us to act in such a way. This is grounded in the belief that all our actions, thoughts, and attitudes arise from the heart. What we'll find is that, although we may believe the gospel, there are still areas of our heart where we are trusting in something or someone other than Christ, looking elsewhere for our source of significance, or otherwise worshiping idols.

As we realize that our sin is deeper and more pervasive than we thought, our awareness of our need for a savior grows as well. That is the third phase of the model: Cross. Here we repent of our sin, recognize the abundant provision that has been made, and turn again in faith toward Christ. We remind ourselves of the inexhaustible well of grace that we draw from, and remember anew the awesome power that is available to us—indeed dwells within us in the Spirit of Christ—to be made new creations freed from the power of sin.

With our hearts renewed in Christ, we are freed from sin to respond to the Heat of life in good and positive ways as we bear Fruit rather than Thorns. In the fourth step of the model, we consider the specific ways that we can live out the grace that we have received. Real change has not happened until the internal heart-change has begun to show itself in our outward actions.

The process is a cycle rather than a linear progression, so even as we seek to live in newness of life, we find that the sinful nature is not wholly put to death yet. Problems don't go away, and Heat continues to beat down on us, showing us Thorns that remain to be rooted out. And so the cycle continues, not in a perpetual circle of sin, but in an upward spiral of being made into the image of Christ who dwells within us. Although How People Change is realistic about the difficulty of overcoming sin, it also has a healthy optimism that the power of God is sufficient to make us into the people that he intends us to be.

I have found this model to be quite helpful for several reasons:

  1. It recognizes that the circumstances of life are not the cause of my sin. I am. That helps me stop ignoring it or making excuses for it.
  2. It pushes me to look at my heart, not just the external behaviors that I want or need to change.
  3. It looks to Christ as the one true solution. I cannot change myself but must cast myself upon the One who can.
  4. It frees me to live differently by dwelling in the gospel rather than by do-more-try-harder.
  5. It recognizes that failure is part of the process and gives me hope that God will use my sin to show me what's in my heart so I can put it to death by the Spirit and become more like Christ. I can own my sin without feeling like I should be "past it".

The book itself is particularly strong in having many presumably real-world (at least, believable) examples of how people might deal with all of the different issues that are brought up. The numerous examples help illustrate how the concepts being presented might work out in real life and thus lend credibility to the ideas.

The other strength of the book that I really appreciated is its wide use of extended quotations from Scripture. Lane and Tripp don't just sprinkle in proof texts to back up their ideas. Rather, they take whole passages, quote the passage right in the text (not just a citation that probably few will actually look up), and walk through it to see how it develops or illustrates what they are addressing. These extended quotes do not include verse numbers within the quote, so it takes some work to figure out what part of the text they are referring to, but as a whole, I think that this approach to teaching is excellent.

How People Change is an outstanding resource that I would heartily recommend to any believer who desires to see real heart change and who wants to help others do the same. I can easily imagine it being used for small-group study as well.

Book Reviews: 
Timothy Lane
Paul Tripp
Book Title: 
How People Change
New Growth Press


Thanks for another good resource Paul. I will have to check this out. I keep thinking at a glance you were reading "How People Grow" which was a very good practical book. He related it to the gospel too but in not such a simple model.

One question though on #1, am I really the cause of sin in my life? Perhaps it needs to be rephrased but it could lead to a lot of unnecessary guilt which has plagued those in the Reformed camp since Luther and Calvin. We must be careful with our language about the cause of sin and too many "reformed" theologians place too much stress on individual sinfulness. I would rephrase that we are responsible for responding in a godly way to the circumstances in our life. Thus, the cause of sin is not limited to external forces (social injustice) or internal forces (individual sinfulness). This is what I believe James is getting at in 1:1-18.

I recently finished "Total Church" and that was excellent. One of the more theologically solid and accessible missional church books I have encountered. As well as "The Forgotten Father", by Thomas Smail. The latter of which I will review soon and I think is a very timely and sadly an under-read book. Honestly, I can't say enough about "The Forgotten Father." I highly recommend it.

Chris, I appreciate your (possible) critique on the idea that I am the cause of my sin. I'm not sure what exactly you mean, though. I would agree with your rephrased statement as the inverse of what I meant, so I guess you're probably just thinking in broader categories that I was. An example of what I mean: When someone cuts me off in traffic and I get upset and make some unnecessary comment about the other driver's intelligence, it wasn't really that person's driving that caused me to be upset and say something inappropriate. The real issue is something going on in my heart. That should drive me not to guilt but back to Christ.

I actually finished Total Church before I read this one, but although I did think it was a very good book, I haven't been able to bring myself to do a review yet. For one, I felt that the chapters were uneven. Some of them are solidly biblical while others were built on their theological structure of gospel and community without much root in the text itself. My other difficulty with doing a review is that I feel like a total noob unworthy in some sense to critique guys who have not only thought this stuff through but worked it out in practice.

I look forward to your review of The Forgotten Father!

Appreciate the response and you brought out the clarity I was looking for. Yes, I was thinking in broader categories but I felt they were important.

I agree with your impressions of Total Church, later chapters seemed more practically focused in order to address specific questions leaders of traditional churches would have. There is a lot of theological depth in those built an theological structure of gospel and community, so discerning if they are "rooted" in the text itself is more difficult but that doesn't make them less biblical. I think they demonstrated some healthy nuances to the nature of the Bible and the church that are needed in Evangelicalism. I did have my own reservations about some of their suggestions. Anyways, I (we) should save that for another post.