Hudson Taylor was a missionary to China in the 1800s and, by almost all accounts, an unusually fruitful and effective servant of God. He was known for an unwavering commitment to his calling, making great sacrifices, and tirelessly working to bring people into a saving relationship with Jesus. But at a point of exhaustion many years into his ministry, he realized something so significant and profound that it transformed his entire approach to the Christian life. This dedicated Christian who had already earned a reputation for fruitful service to God discovered a new perspective that changed everything—so much so that he said he had become “a new man.”
Hudson Taylor’s story greatly impacted my own life. His “spiritual secret” is a profound insight about how we access the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It’s what he and others have called “the exchanged life.” He realized that our old nature died with Jesus on the cross, and we now receive His life in exchange. Instead of striving for faith and holiness, we consider our old selves to be dead and instead rest in the strength of the One who is faithful and holy.
Most new Christians strive and strain to experience their new life, and over time, they get really tired. Maybe you can relate to that. The constant effort to become someone new is exhausting. But the solution is not what most would expect. It’s completely counterintuitive. In the kingdom of God, we get strength through weakness, greatness through servanthood, abundance through giving, and life through death. These are paradoxes that even Jesus’ closest followers struggled with. But they are fundamental to the change we long for.
We even see this principle at work in nature. An acorn has all the makings of an oak tree in it. The oak’s DNA, the programming for its entire future, is already there. It doesn’t look like a tree, and it won’t for a long time. But when it is fully grown, it will be one of the strongest, sturdiest plants on earth. It will grow beautiful leaves, provide plenty of shade, color autumn with magnificent artistry, and shape vast landscapes with its imposing presence. It will be glorious.
But something must happen to that acorn for it to become a mighty oak tree. It has to fall to the ground, be covered with soil, and lose all appearances of ever having been a seed. It essentially dies as a seed in order to be reborn as an oak. The sprout, then seedling, then sapling will endure harsh seasons, strong winds, bright sun, and maybe even floods and droughts. All those trials just make it a hardier plant. It will eventually grow to maturity and be admired by many. But that end result cannot happen without that first descent into the ground.
Jesus referred to that planting process the night before His crucifixion. He knew He would have to fall to the ground and die in order to live and produce many more seeds (John 12:24). But then He immediately shifted the focus from Himself to His followers. Not only must He enter into the ground and die in order to come up again as a life-giving, fruit-bearing plant; so must they. “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (v. 25). Paul referred to the same principle of seeds being sown into death and then growing into life. We sow what is perishable, dishonorable, weak, and natural in order to be raised as imperishable, honorable, powerful, and supernatural (1 Cor. 15:36–37, 42–44). In other words, we can’t become who we were meant to be without giving up who we were. The seed has to die in order to live.
That’s a foundational principle not only in entering into eternal life but in living it out. Like a seed planted in the ground, we are called to walk through a process of participating in the death of Jesus, of being planted in the tomb, so we can rise out of it in new life. It isn’t a onetime experience; it’s an ongoing dynamic. As far as God is concerned, old things have already passed away and new things have come (2 Cor. 5:17). From our position at ground level, however, we still experience remnants of old things, and they have to undergo a death. We have to learn to apply His death and resurrection in order to live resurrected lives.
Transformation really only happens when we approach it as an all-or-nothing proposition, which can feel really intimidating and overwhelming. Acorns don’t try on some sprouts and leaves before deciding to go all in. They can’t start and then take it back, then grow a few inches higher and shrink a few inches lower while they’re figuring it all out. Their investment in oakhood is a total commitment.
Ingram, Chip. 2021. Yes! You Really Can Change: What to Do When You’re Spiritually Stuck. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
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