Category Archives: spiritual formation
Last week, I posted a summary of the 8 classes I’m writing to assist new Christians begin to grow up in Christ. In our study of what it means to live missionally, we’re looking at Scripture, theology, philosophy, and praxis with the goal of not just seeing where God will place us, but also acting on what we hear.
What does it mean to be missional anyway? Is this just a buzzword that pastors and church leaders use now but that will fade away like other fads in the church?
In its simplest definition, “missional” is “missionary” in adjective form. Part of the reason for moving from the term “missionary” is its connotations with colonialism, which brought European/American culture to foreign nations with the gospel in the early 20th century and before. Being a missional church means the exact opposite of this: it means learning the “language” of the culture and contextualizing the gospel for the culture. In this way, missional churches and people know that God chooses to work in every culture, to meet people where they are at, just as He did in the person of Jesus Christ.
Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson write in Comeback Churches that missional churches have these characteristics: they are incarnational, indigenous, and intentional.
They are incarnational in that the church is the “body of Christ” representing the presence of Christ in the community. It is not stuck in its building. Like Reggie McNeal says, the church is the people of God, a who rather than a what.
They are indigenous in that the people are firmly rooted in the surrounding culture. Worship is meaningful not only to church people but also to unchurched people. Rather than a church filled with people who live much like the world but look different, indigenous churches are the exact opposite: filled with people who live differently but look the same.
And they are intentional in their decisions about worship styles, times, locations, methods, and attire, based on the context. Churches are intentional about moving beyond their preferences so that the cultural gap, as Hirsch mentions, does not continue to widen.
Brian McLaren calls himself missional in his book A Generous Orthodoxy. He defines it as a third way, an option unlike conservative missiology (Jesus as a personal Savior) and liberal missiology (social justice)–though I think it can actually encompass both. Missional churches are people who meet needs and serve the world. They take seriously both halves of God’s promise to Abraham: I will bless you and make you a blessing to the nations. According to McLaren, the church’s mission is “to be and make disciples of Jesus Christ in authentic community for the good of the world.”
In So Beautiful, Leonard Sweet contrasts the APC church (attractional, propositional, and colonial) with the MRI church (missional, relational, incarnational). Sweet is saying something by keeping missional with relational and incarnational. He puts the three together in these ways:
Missional is the mind of God, relational is the heart of God, and incarnational is the hands of God.
Relating to the Nicene Creed: We believe in one holy, catholic, apostolic church. In other terms, an apostolic church is made up of sent out people (missional); a holy church is a relational church, loving God and loving others; and a catholic church is an incarnational church, as the word “catholic” means both universal and variant.
To be missional in today’s church world, it seems, is to be defined by what you don’t do just as much as by what you do. Those who seek to be missional also seek to distance themselves from former ways of communicating the gospel (and for good reason). The Incarnation of the Son of God is the defining event, equally important as His death and resurrection, in guiding how we go about partnering in God’s mission in the world.
Pharisees get a bad rap in the New Testament and in contemporary preaching. And for good reason. What is surprising is that Jesus and the Pharisees held several points of theology in common.
For example, they both believed in the resurrection of the dead (though the Sadducees didn’t). The Pharisees didn’t exactly like the Sadducees, who had political dealings with Rome, who were priests and led temple worship, and who perhaps only thought that the Torah was normative for life. Pharisees, by contrast, were anti-Rome, operated out of the synagogues, and tried to update, apply, and contextualize the Torah in their day.
None of us today would shudder at the thought of trying to contextualize Scripture for our congregations and communities. The word of God is active and alive. It was the way that Pharisees attempted to do this that caught Jesus’ woes and wrath. By emphasizing things like purity, food laws, who one ate with, activity on the Sabbath, and circumcision, the Pharisees sought to determine who among their Jewish brethren was faithful to the covenant. The Pharisees’ concern was not with getting in but with staying in covenant relationship. They were a sort of “puritan movement” with Judaism.
I have always been struck with one of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount: Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). Righteousness was a very relational term that spoke not just of the state of one’s heart and the actions proceeding from it (though Jesus goes there in Matthew 7…a tree will be known by its fruit). Righteousness was about a person’s faithfulness to the relationship they were in. Did a husband act like a faithful husband? Then he was righteous (see Joseph in the birth narratives of Matthew 1).
Jesus called His disciples to have righteousness–faithfulness to their part of their relationship with God–that went beyond that of the Pharisees.
This means that they obey the Law not because they must, but because God has changed their hearts and enabled them to do so. It also means that they obey the Law not in order to be separate from outsiders or to look holy next to insiders, but because Christ commands obedience to the royal law of love. Obedience to Christ becomes a natural byproduct of their faith in Him and the grace He gives (which is the opposite of what Jesus tells scribes and Pharisees in Matt. 23:25-26 and Lk. 6:43-45).
I cannot think of a time I have said used the language of abiding or remaining to describe a friendship. I’ve never told my wife that one of us is a vine and the other a branch. It’s funny language that seems to be almost redundant, unnecessary. Why would Jesus, in the moments before His arrest and death, talk this way?
Maybe because he was going to the Father.
Maybe because he knew the real temptation the Twelve would have to walk away from all they had known in the past three years with him.
Or maybe because Jesus knew that the only way his disciples would have life and bear fruit would be in their attachment to him, not to anything else, including the Judaism they had grown up in.
John 15:1-4 says,
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
Jesus begins by saying He is the “true vine.” Why? In the Old Testament, Israel was called a vine. Vines were on some of its coins, too. In every instance in the Old Testament, Israel as vine meant Israel was being judged by God. For example, in Hosea 10:1-2, God says, “Israel was a spreading vine; he brought forth fruit for himself. As his fruit increased, he built more altars; as his land prospered, he adorned his sacred stones. Their heart is deceitful, and now they must bear their guilt. The LORD will demolish their altars and destroy their sacred stones.”
Thus, when Jesus calls himself the true vine, he is saying that he can do what Israel failed to do: produce fruit out of a faithful relationship with God. And those who are connected to him will do the same. This connection with Jesus produces eternal life in his “branches,” in us, and it is this eternal kind of life being lived now that results in fruit.
Jesus says these words on the night of his betrayal. They are some of his last words to his disciples who would, after seeing his suffering and death, be tempted to at the very least question how this metaphor works. How do you remain in a dead Messiah? How do you stay connected to your dead Master? And what if the remaining, abiding relationship you have with him results in your own suffering and death?
Paul’s words of being found in him speak to this. Philippians 3:8-12 says,
8What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
Jesus commands His disciples to trust God, and trust also in Him (John 14:1). Such quick words off his lips on the night before He went to the cross. How fitting, for they would experience life in the middle of death and resurrection, with all their trust put to the test. It is the opposite of “letting their hearts be troubled.”
One of the marks of a disciple is trust in God. It may not start out as unwavering confidence, but trust becomes that. Because the Greek word pistis is translated as both “faith” and “trust,” it is easy to confuse the two, making them synonyms when they in fact have a different relationship.
Gerald May says that faith is inherently a risk. We have the freedom to choose faith, but each choice is risky. It becomes less risky as we discover that God can be trusted, that He is faithful to His character.
“Trust supports faith, and faith builds trust,” says May in Addiction and Grace. He gives the example of climbing onto a limb, risking that it is strong enough to hold. If he has previously been on the limb, he has some trust that it will hold. He still needs to make the choice of faith that it has not weakened since the last time, but this is less of a risk because of preexisting trust.
Trust is conditioned. Faith is unconditioned. Trust is conditioned by prior acts experience. Our trust in God grows because He has proven faithful in our past experience. The risks of faith we have taken have proven God trustworthy and faithful.
This is why in Scripture, we are also commanded not to fear or worry, but instead give our fears to God in prayer (Philippians 4:6). It is nearly impossible to take a leap of faith if we are hampered by fear. This doesn’t mean that fear is evil in itself, but we can allow fear of the uncertain to get in the way of making the next choice to put our faith in God. But if we have found God to be worthy of trust, fear cannot have its way. It cannot be our master. We must instead “continue to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12).
In parenting, in gardening, in planning a vacation…in a majority of the everyday tasks we do, beginning with the end in mind is the smart thing to do. It just makes sense. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to accomplish the envisioned end, but it means you’ll have a clear idea of when you’re not getting there. It doesn’t mean you’ll know how to get there, but it guides you into the kinds of learning you’ll need to do to get there.
Beginning with the end in mind when it comes to the local church’s mission to make disciples is a noble goal. It’s wise. Prudent. Better than a shotgun approach. And yet it’s insanely difficult for one local church to, together, narrow in on what Scripture says a disciple looks like.
Richard Foster’s helpful book, Streams of Living Water, characterizes six “streams” of Christianity. Gary Thomas’ book, Sacred Pathways, details nine ways that you and I connect to God. And local churches, regardless of denomination, are no longer homogenous in regards what people expect of discipleship. Individual members of churches may have great sway in shaping what that particular congregation envisions a disciple to be. Whether through decisions on programming or a leader’s own spiritual formation, a local church begins to hammer out what it means to be a disciple. And these are just a few of the factors that go into the discussion.
One other factor might be this: Is it practical to think this way? Prudent? Yes. But practical? No. It is far more practical to “do church” and hope that what we produce is men and women who look and act like Jesus.
In this next series of posts, I’m attempting to buck practicality and lay out a vision for who a disciple is and what kinds of fruit he or she produces. The ontological (being) and teleological (doing) aspects of discipleship.
The first ontological aspect:
Jesus’ disciples become disciples because He calls them. They are called. They answer his call to follow by dropping everything even though they do not understand fully the ramifications of following Him. They find their worth in the calling Jesus has placed on their lives, not in how others have turned them down in the past (Matt. 4:18-22).
Jesus tells His disciples just before His death that He chose them; they did not choose Him. While I think those words are limited to the original twelve, Christ continues to call us to Himself. We do not decide to become disciples out of the blue; we do not sign up for taking up a cross and dying to self because that sounds nice. We answer the call because it is Christ who calls us, and we have chosen to trust Him, even if it is with faith the size of a mustard seed.
Christ calls everyone on the planet to discipleship. His call is not limited to a few, His grace is not limited to a few. There may be few who answer, but all are called.
Spiritual formation is never for our own sake. It is always for the sake of someone else–especially the other person who does not yet know Christ. We may attend Bible studies and classes but if what we learn does not result in mission alongside God, then we are not truly like Christ.
I can’t prove this, but I’ve seen it. The person who is new in Christ, fresh in church attendance, with little knowledge of Scripture, is the person likeliest to grasp this concept. They may have questions about how to relate to a non-Christian spouse or friends, but their first thought is never, “I’ve got to get away from all those people in order to focus on my relationship with Jesus.” They are trying to figure out how their new life in Christ gels with what they’re used to. It is this attitude that we all ought to embrace: How does our life with Christ gel with the people, places, and cultural norms that are indifferent to or opposed to Christ?
Dr. Jim Lo at IWU once stated something like, “Worship fuels mission.” Others have said that the greatest gift we can give the world is our intimacy with God (David Robertson of KBM is one). This is what we’re getting at here.
In the New Testament, “world” (Gk. kosmos) is used in three ways.
1. It is the material creation of God, the locus of God’s redemptive activity. God is actively involved in this physical world. Christians are not deists who think God has removed Himself from His created order.
2. It is the place we live in. Simple enough.
3. It stands for humanity living in sin, antagonistic or apathetic toward God. John’s writings in the NT often speak this way.
This threefold usage of the word makes sense and ought to impact how we view our spiritual formation.
1. We are being formed for the sake of the world, God’s material creation. Creation care matters. The things we do to provide clean water for people, for example, are an outcropping of our spiritual formation.
2. We are being formed for the sake of the world, the place we live in. Maybe not so simple. Could it be that this place, cursed though it was at the Fall, is anticipating its own redemption. This is part of Paul’s point in Romans 8–the groaning of the creation that waits for its liberation from bondage to decay is intricately tied to our hope, the redemption of our bodies. When God brings the final resurrection to pass, He will also recreate and renew this world. We grow in spiritual formation, therefore, so that we might play our roles as stewards of creation one day.
3. We are being formed for the sake of the world, those who are living in sin. This “world” desperately needs to see Christ’s body in action. Those who take seriously Christ’s call to radical discipleship, to love God and love neighbor with all they are. Relationships with these kind of men and women are what make the biggest difference in the world around us. Not church programs, not the four spiritual laws, not my blog–but relationships with those who are being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world. What does the “image of Jesus Christ” refer to? To understand this, we must think back to the creation account in Genesis, where it says that God created Adam and Eve in His image (Genesis 1:26-28). John Wesley wrote about the image of God both before and after the Fall, saying the image of God can be thought of in three parts.
The first part is called the natural image. As people made in God’s image, Adam and Eve were immortal—they wouldn’t die; had perfect reason or understanding—they understood things completely; had free will and judgment—their choices were made just like we make choices, but with perfect judgment; and perfectly ordered emotions or affections—they didn’t get angry over the silly little things, they were patient, etc.
After the Fall, this natural image was marred. They were still able to make decisions, but they didn’t always turn to God when making them. They definitely weren’t immortal anymore; death had entered the Garden. And their emotions were swayed easily over little things. It didn’t take much for them to become depressed or saddened.
The second part is the political image. This refers to our ability to rule over earth and engage in interpersonal relationships. Adam and Eve ruled over creation, naming the animals and living peacefully in the Garden of Eden. They didn’t have to worry about famine or drought, as the earth had not yet been cursed. They also got along with one another. No miscommunication, no hurting each other’s feelings, no secrets or betrayal.
After the Fall, the political image was also marred. Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden, rule over the earth became much more difficult as a result of the curse, and they did not rule the earth as God intended. Neither did they relate to one another perfectly: the first sin recorded after humanity’s booting from the Garden was Cain killing Abel.
The third part is the moral image. This refers to our immediate personal knowledge of God. Adam and Eve knew God intimately. God wasn’t just a part of theirs lives; He was there with them. He cared for them, and they spoke with Him like we do one another. They loved God with all their hearts. And because of this, they understood that people were special to God.
After the Fall, the moral image was completely destroyed. Not just marred, but destroyed. Adam and Eve didn’t know God intimately as before. God no longer walked in the cool of the day with them. Their sin separated them from God. And there was nothing they could do to restore the relationship. Sin was alive, and as a result, they would have to rely on God to make Himself known to them and to make it possible for them to know Him once again.
And here is the kicker: The New Testament intentionally speaks of Jesus Christ as the second Adam!
- Romans 5:14, 18: Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come…. Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all.
- 1 Corinthians 15:21-22: For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
Jesus Christ is the second Adam, the one who is both fully human and fully God who lived a life faithful to God unlike Adam. When given the choice to sin, Jesus did not. He perfectly reflected the image of God to humanity by His faithful obedience, showing us exactly who God is. Hebrews 1:1-3 says, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
And so, when we are being conformed into the image of Christ, what God is doing is making us like the Son of God, capable of representing God to the world in faithful obedience. We go from having a marred natural and political image and a fully broken moral image, incapable of even knowing God, to a partially-restored natural and political image. When we are born, we have some ability to reason, to understand the world around us, to relate to those around us, etc. But our moral image is still fully broken. Those who accept Christ receive His grace and begin on the road to receiving more grace, which enables them to cooperate with God and to find full restoration of the moral image in this life. God enables us to be conformed into the image of Christ.
In our continuing conversation about what Christian spiritual formation is, we come to the phrase “of being conformed.” Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Notice that this is phrased in a passive tense–being conformed. This means we are not the ones who do the work to ourselves, but God does the work to and in us. Again, this does not mean we have no role, but God is the primary player.
It also means that who we are now is not who are to become. God called Adam and Eve “very good,” but not perfect. Even they had character formation necessary.
Conforming may as well be a four-letter word today. It sounds rigid and constricting to our western ears. In all of our efforts to be God’s people, we even want to control what kind of a person we are becoming in Christ, as if that were possible. Christ calls us to lay down our expectations of who we’re becoming. It’s not about being true to my heart, as if authenticity were all that mattered. Authenticity is better than living out a facade. Authenticity is certainly a good step, but it stops short. If we are to participate with God in our spiritual formation, we must move from seeking authenticity alone to seeking authenticity with surrender of control.
Let’s look at some Scripture.
- 1 Peter 1:14-16: As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
- Romans 8:28-30: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
- 2 Corinthians 3:18: And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
- Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
- Colossians 3:9-10: Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.
Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process.
Contrary to popular opinion, Christian spiritual formation is not solely for our kids who need to grow up in a “spiritual environment.” It’s not about making a salvation decision. It’s not something we quit doing when life gets tough. It’s not something we quit doing when we age. We choose to take our part in it day in and day out. It is a process in a similar sense that following a recipe to make a cake is a process. There are ingredients, there are steps, and there is an end goal.
Romans 5:1-5 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
N.T. Wright, in After You Believe, says, “Character is transformed by three things. First, you have to aim at the right goal. Second, you have to figure out the steps you need to take to get to that goal. Third, those steps have to become habitual, a matter of second nature” (p. 29). He points out that there are steps along the way that eventually become habitual. This all sounds like a self-help program, except the goal is God’s goal for us, and any step we take is, once again, enabled and empowered by God’s grace.
Understanding the “standard” ways God works in our lives during this lifelong process, understanding how he wants to build character in us, transforming us back into the image of His Son, becomes essential. We must learn how to cooperate with God.
Implications for the Church
1. Do we really believe there is a goal? Is there a telos? In Wesleyan terms, does God enable holiness in this life? Can we be men and women of Christian character? Have power over sin? Reflect God’s image back into the world? And not just in fleeting moments, but consistently.
2. A lifetime is a long time. In an age when people change jobs, homes, spouses, churches, vehicles, etc. all the time, the prospect of doing anything for a lifetime sounds at best countercultural and at worst boring. We want life change, but we want it now. Christian spiritual formation does not always offer the right-now results. How does the church not only celebrate mile markers in a person’s journey with Christ (beyond baptism), but also celebrate the day-to-day faithfulness?
3. If steps are to become habitual, how much time do we spend helping people take them? Don’t get me wrong, churches need special celebrations (see #2) and special events. They also need to recognize them for what they are. The greatest growth rarely comes at the special events; it comes in the week in, week out rhythms of life. How can a local church develop rhythms and help its people develop rhythms that are life-giving? How can it align its programming to balance both the special things and the rhythmic things?
Previously, we wrote about a definition of spiritual formation, as well as a definition of discipleship. Here, we’ll expand phrase-by-phrase on what we mean when we say,
Christian spiritual formation is the lifelong process of being conformed into the image of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Christian spiritual formation
As we’ve said, everyone goes through spiritual formation. But ours is distinctly “Christian” in the sense that we have:
1. Experienced conversion of the heart, where God makes it possible for us to partner with Him in our own spiritual formation.
4. Decided to reject other forms of spiritual formation as we are made aware of them.
We must determine, according to Dallas Willard, what in our spirit needs to be changed and how that change can be brought about. He says in Renovation of the Heart,
“The revolution of Jesus is in the first place and continuously a revolution of the human heart or spirit. It did not and does not proceed by means of the formation of social institutions and laws, the outer forms of our existence, intending that these would then impose a good order of life upon people who come under their power. Rather, his is a revolution of character, which proceeds by changing people from the inside through ongoing personal relationship to God in Christ and to one another. It [His revolution] is one that changes their ideas, beliefs, feelings, and habits of choice, as well as their bodily tendencies and social relations” (p. 15).
Christian spiritual formation takes place only as our hearts are transformed. Thus, Jesus can speak of how our inner person comes across in our outer person. Matthew 12:33-35 says, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. Good people bring good things out of the good stored up in them, and evil people bring evil things out of the evil stored up in them.”
The danger here is that because we can see what happens externally, we then focus on it as the barometer of our spiritual formation or of the spiritual formation of others. We delve into legalism quickly when we watch for how people dress, whether they pray, church attendance, etc.
1. Conversion is a necessary part of spiritual formation, but it alone is not sufficient. Just as self-identifying as a Christian does not a Christian make, so also conversion alone does not a disciple make. It is the “ongoing personal relationship to God in Christ and to one another” that makes the ongoing difference.