Conversions of old structures for new uses is painstaking, tedious, and frustratingly limited, but also capable of producing amazing results. In fact, the results are often more amazing because of the starting point. To take an old, decrepit building, and transform it into a vibrant masterpiece that then becomes the focal point of a rejuvenated city center is even more impressive than if the same masterpiece had been built from scratch. Its history is a priceless contribution. For instance, the buildings pictured above were some of the largest storage buildings in Europe for coal gas when they were built over 100 years ago. Now, in one of the more interesting conversions I’ve seen, they are called Gasometer City, and house an entire community of over 600 apartments, plus shops, restaurants, a movie theater, and more. That’s pretty neat, in my opinion. Bringing an abandoned dead building, good for nothing but demolition, back to life and making it beautiful again is an act of redemption, and I think we see the same thing played out in the lives of people being transformed by the skilled hand of the Master Artisan and Architect of our faith. So let’s work through that today.
I see a lot of similarities between the renovations we do to old buildings and what God does to us. In fact, God’s not just in the renovation business; He started it. And He keeps doing it day in and day out. Don’t believe me? Think about it: God could’ve just started over when Adam & Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden; He could’ve started completely over when He wiped out most of humanity and saved Noah and his family; He could’ve just razed the whole structure of the universe and started clean at any point – but He didn’t. Instead, He redeemed a broken humanity. He set in motion a plan, and sovereignly guided it every step of the way, so that spiritually dead humans would be brought to life, becoming walking testaments to the power, wisdom, and love of God.
- Just like the old decrepit building slated for demolition, there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves [Eph 2:1,8-9]. We needed an Investor to come along and pay to buy us off the auction block – to redeem us – and make us new again [Mk 10:45]. Sometimes, people want to convert a historic abandoned building and make it something special again, but decide the price is too high. They can start fresh somewhere else, or maybe even demolish the antiquated building and build a new one cheaper than what it would take to rehabilitate an old building. They give up on the old building they wanted to save because the price is just too high for them. Yet, such was His great love for us that God paid an unfathomable price: the life of His Son [1Pe 1:18-19, Rom 5:8-10].
- God takes burned-out, rock-bottom, homeless drug addicts as well as superstars that have climbed the ladder of fame and fortune and found the “top of the world” to be empty and meaningless; He takes trusting little kids and repentant old rebels on their deathbed; His offer of salvation is open to men and women, rich and poor, young and old, illiterate and diploma-collectors, people of all colors and nationalities – everyone [Gal 3:28, Col 3:11, Rom 3:29]. But no matter where you are in life, the “before and after” couldn’t be more dramatic: you’re a “child of wrath” beforehand [Eph 2:3-5], and a child of God [Rom 8:14-17] after He purchases you. Now that’s an “extreme makeover”!
- Generally, it’s easier to make a new building look like an older one that’s been fixed up than it is to actually restore and improve the existing structure. It’s far more challenging when you are constrained to working with what’s already there. Yet God, in His supreme power and wisdom, accomplishes His work both in us and through us, even with all our flaws and orneriness and outright stupidity sometimes. And though He makes us a “new creation” [2Cor 5:17], this isn’t like some “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers” where He replaces us with a doppelganger. Rather, there is continuity, for I am the same person I was before. Yet there is contrast of purpose as I live for the glory of God rather than my own glory. My history doesn’t have to be my future, and yet, my history is still an integral part of the story of God’s amazing work in this world. I am reminded of going to Spokane, Washington several years ago and visiting a shopping mall that had been an old flour mill. Part of the attraction of the place was the paradoxical continuity of use yet contrast of purpose – the history of what it had been compared with what it had become. Honestly, its history made it a more interesting shopping mall than the majority of purpose-built malls I’ve visited.
In closing, I leave you with some of the last words of one who knew a thing or two about God’s renovating work of conversion and sanctification. John Newton was an English slave ship captain turned minister and abolitionist, and the author of perhaps the world’s most famous hymn, “Amazing Grace”. Here, in the twilight of his life, he summed up the profound gratitude of the Christian heart for the amazing grace that redeems dilapidated wretches:
“I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be; but I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
 John Newton, paraphrased from the original longer quote in the Christian Spectator, Vol. 3, 1821, p.186.
h/t to Pastor John Michael for the quote 😉