Andy Stanley says that one of the five things God uses to grow our faith is personal ministry. What we’re talking about here is serving in ministry, mainly within the church, but also outside of the church. If transforming our bodies is to become a priority, then we must begin to use them in tangible, new ways to serve others.
I’ve called this one of the catalysts toward spiritual formation. Scripture is full of references to the attitude we must have in our personal ministry.
Matthew 20:25-28 says, “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We are not to be like the rulers, or benefactors, of the Gentiles, who in Jesus’ day were among the wealthiest 3% of the Roman world. They gave tons of money to cities and expected praise and adoration and power in return. Rather, Jesus calls us to embrace the shame of a slave.
Romans 1:25 (on how we used to serve created things instead of God) says, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
In this verse, we are reminded that our personal acts of service and worship in this world can be directed toward created things–money, other people, our jobs, social status–our equivalents of idols. When we do this, we participate in keeping the image of God in us marred and broken.
1 Cor. 12:4-6 says, “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.”
I love this passage. Gifts, serving and working are all paralleled here by Paul. In the various gifts and service that we find within the church, there is the same Triune God at work. God distributes the gifts. Notice that God is not only at work in the act of working, but also in those who are doing the work. This is one reason why faith sticks in teens and new Christians when they choose to serve in a local church. God shapes them in the work they do on worship teams, in kids ministry, at food giveaways, and in working with the homeless.
Ephesians 4:11-13 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
These are such oft-quoted verses, especially at ordination services. And they should be, for they speak of the importance not only of the ordained minister, but of God’s people at work in service. I think of aging as an apt metaphor. As people age, those who stay physically active as much as possible tend to stay alive longer (a generalization, but one with empirical evidence). So it is in the Christian life. Those who continue to serve in the church trek onward in maturity in Christ, while those who sit on the sidelines miss out on the corporate spiritual formation God seeks to do in His people, the church.
For the early Christians, a relationship with Christ was even more about making a change in their social groupings than it was individual, personal salvation. Becoming a Christian had sharp consequences as they would be shunned by their Jewish brethren. While ethnically Jewish, they chose to believe in Jesus the Messiah and thus separate themselves from family members and close friends. Unless whole families converted.
This is why we read of Christians calling one another brother and sister in the Bible. They had become a new family, God’s family, and they needed the social bonds and friendship made possible in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, our picture of human relationships prior to coming to Christ has been affected by such things as rejection–just ask any student about the loss of a friendship or the way kids bully others at school–verbal abuse, wounds, fear, pain, the desire to belong, etc. We remember that John Wesley said that after the Fall, the political image of humanity was marred. We no longer related well with each other. We must re-learn what it means to love one another again.
The Bible says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). Love is essential. And yet love is so misconstrued as either a feeling we have or as something we are allowed to withhold from some and yet give to others.
Love is the will to seek the good for another person. It is always a choice we make. We remember that God’s vision for the world is one where He loves every person, and where we, bearing His image, love every person as well. This type of love transcends ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, color of the skin, history, prejudice, politics, emotions, social standing, etc.
We are called not only to love our neighbors but also to love our enemies.
Dallas Willard writes, “Spiritual formation, good or bad, is always profoundly social. You cannot keep it to yourself. Anyone who thinks of it as a merely private matter has misunderstood it…. Strictly speaking, there is nothing ‘just between me and God.’ For all that is between me and God affects who I am; and that, in turn, modifies my relationship to everyone around me” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 182).
Some may buy into the myth that “my personal relationship with God” is also a private one. Don’t. As Andy Stanley has said, “It may be personal, but it’s public.”
Part of spiritual formation is both our call to love our neighbor as ourselves as well as our wisdom in changing the people with whom we allow in our “inner circle.” Some Christians have mistakenly taught that becoming a Christian means forsaking one’s non-Christian friends. This is the wrong approach, for God has now positioned you in their lives as a witness for Him.
Joseph Myers wrote a profound book, The Search to Belong, on the ways in which people choose to belong to groups and to one another. He said that people belong in four different ways: public, social, personal, and intimate. In each space, we know people in different ways. He says we will only ever have one person in the “intimate” space, and that our capacity to belong to others in the other spaces grows (i.e., we’ll have more people in the personal space, even more in the social space, and a huge number in the public space). Here is how he defined each of these “spaces”:
Public: These are people we meet at public places, like the waiter at our favorite restaurant or the gas station attendant. They may be people we only know by name. We need more people in this space than any other. Public belonging is about connecting through outside influences–we’re all Tigers fans, all parents whose kids go to the same school, etc. People in this space don’t generally exchange personal information, and if they do, they move to a new space. People may want anonymity in this space but they don’t want to be strangers; it’s all about feeling like you fit in.
Social: Social belonging is what you think it is: It’s about small talk over coffee and donuts. This is the relationship you may have with your neighbor. You chat about the weather each time you see one another getting the mail. In this space, we know people just well enough and are perhaps evaluating whether or not we want to become better friends with them. These are the people you greet at church but don’t know much more about. You’ll have less people with whom you relate in these social ways.
Personal: This is the space that starts to get affected the most when a person becomes a Christian. It is here that we ask the question: Is it okay with Jesus if I still spend as much time with my close friends as I used to? Personal relationships are ones we share the details of life, the private stuff that maybe doesn’t get shared with too many others. These are relationships that many people term “intimate” but this is a misnomer. We are only capable of being intimate with one person–our spouse (if we are married, or another close friend if single).
Intimate: This is where we share the “naked truth” with another and are “not ashamed.” We fully trust this person to keep our secrets, to like and love us for who we are, and to never leave us. Intimacy is not only a sexual term but an emotional and informational term as well (The Search to Belong, pp. 39-51).
Thus, we seek to have a Christian spouse and a larger group of Christians in our personal friends, while maintaining relationships with others.
We can think of spiritual formation influencing relationships with our spouse, our children, our extended families, our neighbors, our close friends, our co-workers, strangers, people at church, people who have wronged us, and people who no one else seems to care about. There is not one person that we cannot love like Christ loves, though it will take his help and the help of the church.
Robert Webber writes, “The church and its worship are sources of nourishment precisely because they embody God’s story and witness to God’s divine embrace and constantly keep God’s vision of a restored people and renewed earth before us” (The Divine Embrace, p. 220). We do not attend church on Sundays because we must, but because in the church, we remember God’s plan for us and our world. Worship, Scripture, prayer and the sacraments together with other Christians form us into God’s people.
Dallas Willard points to Romans 12:9-21 gives a great list of the ways our gatherings should look:
- Letting love be completely real and sincere (v. 9)
- Abhorring what is evil (v. 9)
- Clinging to what is good (v. 9)
- Being devoted to one another in family-like love (v. 10)
- Outdoing one another in giving honor (v. 10)
- Serving the Lord with fervor and diligence (v. 11)
- Rejoicing in hope (v. 12)
- Being patient in troubles (v. 12)
- Being devoted constantly to prayer (v. 12)
- Contributing to the needs of the saints (v. 13)
- Practicing hospitality (v. 13)
- Blessing persecutors instead of cursing them (v. 14)
- Being joyful with those who are rejoicing and being sorrowful with those in sorrow (v. 15)
- Living in harmony with one another (v. 16)
- Not being proud, but fitting in with those considered “lowly” (v. 16)
- Not seeing yourself as superior or wiser than others (v. 16)
- Never repaying evil for evil (v. 17)
- Having due regard for what everyone takes to be right (v. 17)
- Being at peace with everyone, so far as it depends on you (v. 18)
- Never taking revenge, but leaving that to whatever God may decide (v. 19)
- Providing for needy enemies (v. 20)
- Not being overwhelmed by evil, but overwhelming evil with good (v. 21)
Willard says, “Just think for a moment what it would be like to be a part of a group of disciples in which this list was the conscious, shared intention, and where it was actually lived out, even if with some imperfection” (Renovation of the Heart, pp. 195-196).
It’s time to get back to the ordo salutis, or way of salvation. It has been a month since the last post on this.
I’ll be honest, the idea of trying to change my physical body is counter-intuitive. Isn’t spiritual formation something that happens in the unseen, hidden places of the heart and mind? How can changing my body do any good?
Dallas Willard says,
“For good or for evil, the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life–a strange combination of words to most people. One can immediately see all around us that the human body is a (perhaps in some cases even the) primary barrier to conformity to Christ. But this certainly was not God’s intent for the body. It is not in the nature of the body as such. (The body is not inherently evil.) Nor is it even caused by the body. But still it is a fact that the body usually hinders people in doing what they know to be good and right” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 159).
We must remember that our bodies are not in and of themselves evil. We are never told in Scripture to escape them. They are part of God’s good, physical creation. Jesus did not come to us as a spirit, but was the Son of God incarnate, in the flesh. And this is part of the contemporary confusion. There are two Greek words in the New Testament that get used to say “body” and “flesh,” and they mean different things, generally speaking. Body is “soma” in Greek and simply refers to our physical bodies. Flesh is “sarx” in Greek and may refer to one’s physical body, as in John 1:14 where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. It may also refer to our sinful nature, or the tendency to act in sin rather than act in accordance with God’s will.
Flesh (sarx) in the NT
While “flesh” in Paul’s letters is not strictly a word that refers to our sinful nature, here are places where it does (see also Romans 7:5; 1 Corinthians 5:5; 2 Corinthians 1:17; Galatians 3:3; 6:7-8; Ephesians 2:3).
- Romans 8:5-13: “5Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind controlled by the sinful nature is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace. 7The sinful mind is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9You, however, are not controlled by the sinful nature but are in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. 12Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”
- Galatians 5:13-26: “13You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. 16So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”
To be “in the flesh” as in Romans 8 refers to someone who is not indwelt by the Spirit, who cannot fulfill the Law of God, and who therefore cannot please God. Flesh in these passages is not physical flesh, as in 1 Corinthians 6:19, where the body of flesh is the temple of the Holy Spirit and is the means of glorifying God (6:20).
Ben Witherington III writes, “The tension in the Christian life is not between old person and new person (for the old person has been crucified and is dead and buried), but rather between Spirit and flesh” (Grace in Galatia, p. 377). He advocates translating sarx as “sinful inclination.” “In other words, I think Paul is talking about the prompting within human beings for their sin (their inclination to do that which they ought not to do), not the resulting effect (a corrupt nature)” (pp. 377-378).
Paul views the death of the flesh as something that has already happened in the death of Christ. Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh and its passions (Gal. 5:24). The flesh–the human powers of living that are bent to sin–is based in the physical body. Those whose minds are set on the flesh will do what they want to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Romans 8). But those who are in Christ will not let the desires of the flesh reign in their bodies but will live by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Notice how in Romans 8 the sinful nature, the flesh, is something we can “live according to.” It can be the thing that drives us, that we obey, that we live by. Its opposite it the Spirit (v. 9). We are “in the Spirit”. Even though our bodies are subject to death because we at one time had lived according to our fleshly desires, our bodies will be brought to new life by the Spirit. The Spirit will give life to our bodies. The question is, will this life happen now or only after we die? Paul’s view is that this will happen at the final resurrection after we die. Thus, our bodies will not be completely renewed in this life, and yet they must undergo spiritual formation just like the rest of us so they are no longer slaves to the fleshly desires we have.
The flesh is not the same thing as the body. While we must deal with our flesh’s desires, we do not treat our bodies in the same way.
One of the ways we use our bodies for good or evil is in our body language. For example:
- We give stern looks to people who cross us.
- We cross our arms in anger, to distance ourselves from another.
- We give people “the finger.”
- We dress our bodies provocatively to attract attention.
- We hide our bodies in shame by dressing in large clothing or sunglasses.
- Our facial expressions show sarcasm, envy, jealousy, etc.
- Our eyes, mouths, etc.
You can see into a person’s heart by the way they walk into a room or look at you. The issue is that not only do our minds begin to develop patterns of thinking, but also our bodies interact with those patterns of thinking and feeling by how they set. Our bodies reinforce, then, our spiritual formation for good or ill.
Training Our Bodies in Anticipation of the Resurrection
Our bodies will one day be resurrected bodies. Heaven is not a place for disembodied souls. The body will be redeemed fully at the general resurrection. Because we anticipate its redemption, we must train it today.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 says: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”
We cooperate with God’s grace given to us by choosing to no longer offer parts of our bodies to sin. Romans 6:12-13 says, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.” Whereas we once found it quite easy for our bodies to engage in sinful activity–it doesn’t take anything supernatural for us to take part in fornication, greed, covetousness–we now submit our bodies to Christ and His Spirit.
Dallas Willard says we can do four things for the spiritual formation of the body:
- Release our body to God. This is what Paul means when he says, “present our body as a living sacrifice to God” (Romans 12:1). Specifically pray about each part of your body and ask God to take charge of it and to begin giving life to each part.
- No longer idolize your body. Stop worrying about what will happen to it with age and sickness, stop spending so much money on making it more beautiful, etc. Take good care of it with diet and exercise, but do not make it an idol.
- Do not misuse your body. He says this means not using it as a source of sensual gratification outside of the sexual relationship in marriage and not using it to dominate others. This means not using it in brute force to intimidate, or using it in sexual ways to manipulate or seduce. It also means not overworking it.
- The body is to be properly honored and cared for. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:13b-15a, “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself?” This is part of Paul’s argument for them not to engage in sex with prostitutes. For us, while this may not be a temptation, we are called to treat our bodies like they are members of Christ (Renovation of the Heart, pp. 173-174).
Like everything else God is trying to do in us, the transformation of our bodies anticipates the day when our good bodies are resurrected and perfected. We train them now not in despair because they will disappear one day, but because God will use the very physical material of our current bodies to create our new ones, just as He did with Jesus.
Mildred Wynkoop wrote, “What one believes about human nature and God’s grace will have a direct bearing on the kind of Christian life one experiences” (qtd. in Harper, The Way to Heaven, p. 65). I think we’re finding that out already in our study of how God changes us. Knowing the way God desires to work in us, and believing He will, has great bearing on our further growth in Christ.
The Wesleyan doctrine of progressive sanctification basically says that as we are Christians, we continue to receive more of God’s grace, enabling us to grow. Thomas Oden writes, “During the entire time that sanctifying grace is continuing to work—throughout life—the believer is daily called upon to confess, repent, and pray for forgiveness. The new birth begins a life that grows in responsiveness to unmerited grace and presses on in the way of holiness” (Classic Christianity, 657).
This is an important topic–we grow in grace. Normally, when we talk about spiritual growth, believers assume we mean taking another class to grow in knowledge. And yet knowledge is only part of the equation, and knowledge without grace means nothing. Now is probably a good time to explain grace a bit.
Grace has to do with at least two things:
- God’s unmerited favor given to us as a gift. This is the grace we speak of at conversion/salvation.
- God’s power enabling us to live the Christian life. This is the grace we speak of afterward.
John Wesley taught that we grow in grace out of a sense of assurance. Romans 8:16-17 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (TNIV). Assurance is possible that we are indeed God’s children, saved for a glorious inheritance. Satan would try to make us doubt and fear God’s love for us and our standing with Him. Assurance is not a rest-on-your-laurels kind of thing, as if God’s assurance means we sit back and wait for heaven one day. For John Wesley, assurance only dealt with one’s present relationship; it was not a guarantee for the future. Only continued obedience and faithfulness could take care of the future. Assurance says, “How amazing is my Savior, Jesus!” He has made His home in me and He intends to stay.
Progressive sanctification really is simply what we’ve been talking about all along–renewal of the mind and of the heart/will, changing our narratives, etc. And it encompasses things we’ll talk about in future posts. The point of understanding that what we’re experiencing now is “progressive sanctification” is that we understand that all of our work to partner with God in response to His grace is both a necessary and natural step for us to take. To take a class and gain knowledge is necessary and natural. To read blog posts is nice. To surrender your will to God is necessary and natural, and only enabled by grace. And so on and so on.
The mind is where we begin. Before our conversion, our thoughts were directed by sinful hearts. Now they are directed by a regenerated heart, capable of loving God…and yet our minds need “renewed.”
Our thoughts involve four things, according to Dallas Willard:
1. Ideas: Patterns of interpreting reality. They may involve beliefs. They are shared by those who know. Examples are freedom, education, happiness, the American dream, progress, death, home, government, church, fairness, God, etc. We all have ideas of what these things are and should be. We cannot precisely define ideas: they are hard to pinpoint and yet we try to define them as a way to control them. For example, whoever can define “marriage” in our country can control who is allowed to be married. We are largely blind to our ideas; but exploring what we think of as “natural” or “obvious” shows us just where our ideas lie. Our idea systems need to be transformed. For example, if we once thought of “blacks” as people inferior to “whites,” this is something God must work on in us.
2. Images: Images are tied to ideas but are not abstract. They are concrete. Images evoke emotions. When we think of an idea, we have an image that runs through our head. Jesus chose one image–the cross–and made it the most powerful image in the world. Again, our images must be transformed.
Dallas Willard says, “When [Satan] undertook to draw Eve away from God, he did not hit her with a stick, but with an idea. It was the idea that God could not be trusted and that she must act on her own to secure her own well-being” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 100).
Part of spiritual formation is rewiring our minds to have new ideas and images of God too. The other two areas of thought help us to break the power of our toxic ideas and images.
3. Information: The first task of Jesus in the gospels, in his public ministry, was to proclaim to people the availability of entrance into God’s kingdom, to give them new information about eternal life in God. Jesus had to combat false information about God in his teaching and proclaiming. Just as Jesus gave us information about God, so we need to know who God is.
4. Ability to think: Dallas Willard defines thinking as “the activity of searching out what must be true, or cannot be true, in the light of given facts or assumptions” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 104). He says, “The prospering of God’s cause on earth depends upon his people thinking well” (p. 105). Today, we easily dismiss those who think about God as people disconnected from real life. But perhaps this is because we have not taken the time to think about how we think. We all think. And our minds are no less important than any other parts of us. Those who think this way are like the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia who produced the “killing fields,” where anyone with any sign of education, even those who simply wore glasses, were killed in the late 1970s.
Scripture uses the phrase “renewing of the mind” when it speaks of our mind’s transformation.
Romans 12:2: 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.
Ephesians 4:20-24: That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Note that in both passages, the renewing of the mind is contrasted with the sinful thought patterns of this world. It is combined with other acts of putting off the old self and putting on the new self. The renewing of the mind, then, can be thought of practically as changing our ideas and images with new information and the ability to think (with the assistance of the Holy Spirit).
Conversion is what makes the difference between someone who is simply seeking God and someone who has entered into a saving relationship with God. In a former post, we talked about this briefly. Conversion makes a difference, and it is a necessary step in one’s Christian spiritual formation–hear me say that I believe we need to call people to real conversion experiences. Conversion, however, is not the end of the road, as we all know from experience. I’m reminded of Scot McKnight’s King Jesus Gospel, where he writes that we’ve become soterians (calling for salvation) rather than evangelicals (preaching the gospel), equating giving people an opportunity to “pray the prayer” with preaching the gospel. But I digress.
The way we call people will impact the way they understand their future life in Christ. It is imperative that we not only make available chances for people to come to Christ in a conversion experience, but also that we adequately explain just what is happening in them.
Conversion is a combination of God’s work and our work. It is, from God’s perspective, all by grace. It is a gift we receive. From our perspective, God’s grace makes possible also the gift of faith. In repentance, we turn from sin and turn to God in faith. According to Wesley,
Saving faith is not belief in the truths of the Bible. Satan believes this and is Satan still.
Saving faith means putting your confidence in the grace of God.
Saving faith means assurance that Jesus is the Son of God who died and rose again for me.
Saving faith means we rely on this Christ. We no longer rely on ourselves but on Him.
Saving faith means obedience. Wesley said this is obedience to all the commands of God, internal and external; obedience of the heart and of the life; in every temper and all manner of life.
This definition of saving faith is active and alive. It does not see salvation as an act of the past. We might ask, “I’m glad you were saved, but are you saved today?” Perhaps we ought to remember the Greek perfect tense verb as our example: salvation/conversion is something God accomplishes in us in the present that has impact in the future.
Conversion accomplishes four things in us:
Justification: What God does for us by pardoning our sins (Harper, The Way to Heaven, p. 55). Romans 3:21-24 says, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Notice how in these verses, Paul talks about the righteousness–being made right with God–has been made possible through faith in Jesus Christ. Everyone sinned, but everyone was also justified–pardoned from their sin–by his grace. We would do well to emphasize verse 24 in our preaching just as much as verse 23.
New Birth/Regeneration: “Renewing our fallen nature” (Harper, p. 56). This is renewal of the moral image of God, making us new creations in Christ empowered to live above sin. It is a change in heart, mind, will and action. The natural image and the political image are now also able to begin their renewal. Romans 6:1-4 says, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Paul continues in Romans, now talking about how we have died with Christ to sin. Our baptism symbolizes our deadness to sin and the new life that Christ brings. This is not just a new life as someone who now identifies himself or herself as a Christian, as if the newness were solely in self-identity. It is newness in the heart.
1 John 3:8-9 says, “The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. Those who are born of God will not continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God.” God’s seed in this verse refers to Jesus Christ. They cannot go on willfully sinning. This verse is not saying we will never sin again, but our new birth in Christ enables us to live above the power of sin and to actually choose God over sin every time.
Reconciliation/Adoption: The relationship that was broken by sin, between God and us, is restored (Harper, p. 58). We are adopted as sons and daughters of God. 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making 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.” Through Jesus Christ, God restored a broken relationship with us (and now calls us to tell the world about it!).
Colossians 1:21-22 says, “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” Note how Paul says we were once “alienated” from God and were enemies. Enemies in our own minds, that we thought of God as an enemy because of our evil behavior. How is this possible? Perhaps we assumed that God would want nothing to do with us and we wanted nothing to do with him too.
Initial Sanctification: Inward and outward holiness begins. God not only calls us righteous but makes us righteous with the righteousness of Christ. In real purity, our hearts are made places where the Spirit can dwell. Romans 6:19b-22 says, “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
If conversion accomplishes these four things–justification, the new birth, adoption and reconciliation, and the initial work of sanctification, that’s a lot to pack into a sermon. Most of you haven’t even made it through this whole post it’s so long. My point is, can we reimagine better ways to communicate the necessity and benefits of conversion than a quick call to salvation using the Romans Road? I believe we can, and we must. It will have to involve relationships, and it will probably have to take place outside of our worship services. Does God honor commitments made in those 5 minutes? Certainly. I just think we can improve on it.
The bottom section of the ordo salutis begins with humanity made in the image of God. I probably should edit the diagram to include a break in the line where the Fall took place. Adam and Eve’s sin not only resulted in the curses of Genesis 3, but also the passing on of this ability and tendency to sin, to rebel against God, to think we know better than He.
God loves every human being as the supreme object of His creation. We were created in original righteousness. God’s love is a love that is not simply expressed as a hope to get back the creation that was lost to Him in sin, but a love that was tangibly shown in the midst of our rebellion.
Original sin is a doctrine that says that every human has inherited the sinfulness of Adam. Not only do we commit acts of sin, but we are sinners, bent toward sin. If left to ourselves, we could not and would not choose to reconcile the broken relationship with God. To say that this sin “separates us” from God is not as simple as “God hates sin and cannot be in the presence of sinners.”
Sin can best be understood in terms of relationships. Wesley said sin is “every voluntary breach of the law of love” (Harper, p. 23). Sin is a broken relationship, made consciously or willingly. We broke the relationship with God, not the other way around.
Sin does not sneak up on us but arises out of us. Sin has become a very part of our nature; we sin because we are sinners; the image of God has been corrupted in us. We do not know how we have all been infected with sin because of Adam; we cannot explain how original sin has been passed down to us, but only that it has.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
In Romans 3:10-18 Paul is quoting lots of Old Testament Scripture (specifically Psalm 14:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Psalm 5:9; Psalm 140:3; Psalm 10:7; Isaiah 59:7-8; and Psalm 36:1).
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
11there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
12All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
13“Their throats are open graves;
their tongues practice deceit.”
“The poison of vipers is on their lips.”
14“Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15“Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16ruin and misery mark their ways,
17and the way of peace they do not know.”
18“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
In verse 9 he said that Jews and Gentiles alike are under the power of sin. Sin is the equalizer.
If sin were a “thing,” we could cut it out of us somehow. But because sin is a sickness, our only option is transformation. Because sin is a broken relationship, our only option is God sending His Son to restore that relationship. And because sin is corruption of the image of God in us, we cannot do it on our own. Sin makes us dead toward God, stuck in self-captivity (making ourselves into gods), and helpless to change. It is Jesus Christ, both fully God and fully human, who accomplishes the work of redemption and righteousness in us. And the great hope we have goes beyond mere forgiveness to holiness.
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.
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?