It is common in Evangelical circles for a preacher or writer to say something like, “If your life does not show that you’ve been transformed, then you show you do not have true saving faith.” Many understand 2 Cor 5:17 to mean that a person becomes spiritually mature at the very moment of faith. All of his old bad habits are gone. Instantly. Alcoholic? Not anymore. Rageaholic? Not anymore. Gossip? Not anymore. Liar? Not anymore. You are now a new creature in your experience. The old things are gone forever. No need for Celebrate Recovery or any other programs. You are instantly mature in the faith.
In an article at desiringGod.org (see here), William Farley asks, “Has Believing in Christ Changed You?” He says, “New birth and spiritual fruit cannot be separated…John inexorably connects new birth with a changed way of life.”
Aaron Armstrong at the Gospel Project writes,
“If you have been born again, not only is your inward self altered, and your outward self too, but the very root and principle of your life must become totally new. When we are in sin we live to self, but when we are renewed, we live to God. While we are unregenerate, our principle is to seek our own pleasure, our own advancement. But that man is not truly born again who does not live with a far different aim from this” (see here).
I once spoke on 2 Cor 5:17 at a Southern Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, TX. There was a cowboy in his mid-forties in the class. When I pointed out that many say that all your former fleshly desires are gone the minute you believe in Christ, he became incensed. He said that he was a recovering alcoholic. He continued to struggle with alcoholism for years after he was saved. Then he went through rehab. He hadn’t had a drink in years. But he said that he desired a drink nearly every day. He found the idea of instant maturity insulting to his intelligence.
Like him, many recognize that growth takes time (1 Cor 3:1-3; Heb 5:12-14). There is no instant maturity. The old habits do not simply vanish. For an explanation of what 2 Cor 13:5 actually means, see here.
I decided to study the word transformed (metamorphoō, from which we get the word metamorphosis).
It occurs only four times in the NT. All four are very famous, though most of the leading English translations do not translate two of the occurrences as transformed.
Two are found in key sanctification verses Rom 12:2i and 2 Cor 3:18. Both say that we can be transformed by the Holy Spirit renewing our minds via Scripture. In both cases, transformation is not automatic. It is possible to be conformed to this world (Rom 12:1-2). Many believers think the way the world thinks (1 Cor 3:1-4).
The other two refer to the Lord Jesus. He was transfigured or transformed before Peter, James, and John on a high mountain (Matt 17:2; Mark 9:2).ii
When we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, we become more like Christ.
The English word transformed–translating a different Greek word–is found four additional times in the NT in the NKJV (and KJV). Three (2 Cor 11:13-15) use the word metaschēmatizō to refer to spiritual counterfeits. There were “false apostles” who were “transforming themselves into apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:13). Paul said that “Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). He added that Satan’s ministers “also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:15). Most English translations render that as disguising themselves in all three verses (NASB, NET, HCSB, CEB, CSB, ESV, RSV). I think that is a better translation than the NKJV rendering.
The final use of the English word transformed is in Phil 3:21, also translating metaschēmatizō. Most translations render that will transform (NKJV, NIV, NET, NASB, HCSB, CEB, CSB, ESV). A few translations render it as will change (KJV, WEB, RSV). The NIV and NET join the NKJV in translating it as will transform.
The thinking, the speaking, and the actions of believers should be transformed. That is not guaranteed in this life. (It is guaranteed when Christ returns; see 1 John 3:2.) It is not automatic. If a believer finds a solid Bible-teaching church and actively listens each week with interest and a desire to be changed, he will be transformed a little bit at a time.
The new birth does not result in instant transformation. It makes gradual transformation possible over time.
i See here for an article by me on Rom 12:2.
ii In Matt 17:2 and Mark 9:2, two translations–the HCSB and the CEB–translate the word as transformed.