An old phrase we sometimes still hear concerns “turning over a new leaf.” This cliché, which apparently dates back to the 1500’s, alludes to the turning from one page (or leaf) of a book – the old-fashioned, paper kind – to a new one. Of course, these days when people talk of turning over a new leaf, they’re not making reference to a book – paper or Kindle version – but rather to beginning again, reforming, or making a fresh start.
People turning over a new leaf in their lives might desire to overcome an addiction, a behavioral problem, even a lack of motivation at work. Leave the old page behind and move onto a new one; start afresh.
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Have you ever tried to do this, turning over a new leaf in some area of your life? It might be as simple as deciding to quit watching so much TV or as urgent as trying to overcome a recurring, relationship-damaging struggle with anger. At the start of every year many of us make resolutions or set goals to turn over a new leaf and start doing – or stop doing – things we were not able to accomplish the year prior.
One common misconception about the Christian faith is that it requires taking a similar initiative – to turn over a new leaf spiritually speaking and attempt to clean up our act. That’s not the way it works, however, according to the Scriptures.
Two Bible passages I initially encountered years ago troubled me for some time. One of them said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). I thought, “How can this be true – at least for me? I don’t feel like a new creation. I’m still the same old knucklehead I’ve always been. Don’t tell me the old has gone – it sure seems like it’s still here. I’ve been trying to change, but it’s not happening!”
Another verse offered a similar idea, showing my understanding from the other passage wasn’t misconstrued: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Nowhere do these verses direct the reader to “clean up your act,” or even “turn over a new leaf.” They talk about literal, spiritual renewal, orchestrated by God and not our own intentions. My efforts to change my own life, to undo lifelong patterns of wrong thinking and behavior, were as productive as trying to purify a piece of spoiled beef by wiping it off with a paper towel.
Recently I heard an observation by Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, about personal evangelism. He pointed out too often the focus of evangelistic efforts is to invite people to attend a church service or get them to join a particular congregation. That’s not what we’re called to be about as followers of Jesus, according to Stetzer. He stated ours is “not mission of recruitment, but mission of reconciliation.”
He cited 2 Corinthians 5:20-21 (not far from one of the bothersome verses I cited above), which says, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were working his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
In one sense, that’s deep theology. But in another way of looking at it, it’s quite simple. As an old friend of mine used to say, “Jesus took the rap for me.” But He didn’t stop there. Jesus also offered us new life, the capacity to live the life God demands – but in His strength, not ours.
“Apart from Me, you can do nothing,” Jesus told His followers in John 15:5. And as the apostle Paul affirmed in Philippians 4:13, “I can do everything through (Christ) who strengthens me.”
Yes, it might be necessary for us to turn over a new leaf. But we need to understand that Jesus Christ is our leaf-turner.