The Path of the Righteous

“The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day”.  (Prov. 4:18)

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 (II Cor. 3:18)


When I began this series on spiritual formation, I did so by noting that the Bible assumes it to be self-evident that we can know God intimately and that it carefully illustrates how that intimacy is developed.   This truth was enthusiastically embraced by both the early Church Fathers and later the Reformers.  Each taught that Christian spirituality involves a deepening trust and developing friendship with God.  More specifically, they taught that true spirituality is an ever growing, experientially dynamic relationship with our Trinitarian God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–through the agency of the His Word and the indwelling of His Spirit.

John Wesley, more so than any other Reformer, took an explicitly systematic approach to spiritual formation that proved to be remarkably successful.  Scholars and historians believe that the reason his vision for spiritual formation was so highly effective was due to the fact that he defined Christianity itself as a way of life and not just a creed or doctrine.  Wesley believed that a transformed heart ultimately resulted in a transformed life (holiness or Christlikeness).  He even defined “Genuine Christianity” by describing it in terms of a heart shaped or formed by the Spirit.  This paradigm for spiritual growth frames progress as not only what God expects from me but what he allows and provides for me through the means of grace.

However, Wesley’s genius for observation and analyses coupled with his long life and ministry gave him a unique perspective on how this played out in the individual lives of his Methodist converts.  He wrote,

                 From long experience and observation I am inclined to think, that whoever finds redemption in the blood of Jesus, whoever is justified, has then the choice of walking in the higher or the lower path. I believe the Holy Spirit at that time sets before him “the more excellent way,” and incites him to walk therein, to choose the narrowest path in the narrow way, to aspire after the heights and depths of holiness, — after the entire image of God. But if he does not accept this offer, he insensibly declines into the lower order of Christians. He still goes on in what may be called a good way, serving God in his degree, and finds mercy in the close of life, through the blood of the covenant.

          I have written this series of articles for those who seek the “higher path”; the “more excellent way”; the “heights and depths of holiness.”  Yet I too, like Wesley, know that not everyone will develop the capacity nor even the desire for this level of spiritual intimacy and growth.  Some will never believe it is even possible to live in the joy of Christ’s presence or be conformed to His image. Others will see holiness or Christlikeness as a “goal” of the Christian life but one that is not truly attainable.  Either way, both are like a man born with a bad foot, they will just learn to “live with a limp” and assume that is the best that can be done for them until they are glorified in heaven.

Whatever path one ultimately follows, we are still confronted with this very important question, “What is the level of grace that God has provided for us and will ultimately require of us as a condition of final salvation?”

The Biblical doctrine of salvation demands that we answer such a question. The answer given by prominent Wesleyan theologian Richard Taylor is that, “the minimum measure of grace acceptable to God would be an intense desire for the maximum measure of grace available.”[1]  Taylor’s statement hints of an irreducible minimum – one that is tied to both the revealed will of God in Scripture, as well as, God’s enabling grace in man and man’s capacity to respond to the grace.

I believe that there is a path that all Christians can follow that might be called the “irreducible minimum” of Biblical followership. I call it the “Path of the Righteous”.  It requires that we:

  1. Pursue Holiness. Pursue peace with all people,and [pursue] holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God . . .” (Hebrews 12:14-15a).  To pursue means to go after it with all my heart.  It is like a hunter pursuing a catch.  It means to pursue with all haste, earnestly desiring to apprehend.
  2. Walk in the Light. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin (I John 1:7). Walking in the light is a figurative way of saying that we respond positively and obediently to all truth.  The key idea here is obedience.   God clearly expects us to obey his Word and Will.
  3. Maintain a good conscience. “This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith (1 Timothy 1:18-19). People who grow, pursue holy living and become mature believers keep a good conscience! The conscience is our internal rational capacity that bears witness to our value system.  It prods us to do the right thing and pricks us when we have done the wrong thing!  However, it is only a trustworthy guide when it is informed by and in submission to the Word of God.  This is why it is so important that we allow the Word of God to both inform and transform our minds (Romans12:2). 
  1. Embrace difficult circumstances and suffering. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (I Peter 5:10). God uses problems and their subsequent pain to mature and develop us into the kind of men and women He wants us to be. The very trials which may appear to be the means Satan employs for our destruction are the means God employs for our deliverance and development. Behind the opposition of unbelievers stands Satan seeking to devour us, and behind Satan stands God, sure to perfect and purify us. God is working through our struggles to produce strength of character.
  2. Maintain the fullness of the Holy Spirit. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). This may be one of the most important verses in the New Testament for the Christian. It is foundational to everything else. There is nothing we need more. It is a command for all Christians and is the key to living an authentic, empowered life.  Let me stress again, this is a command and not a suggestion. It’s an urgent imperative and not a casual option.  “Be filled” means I play a part in it. For example, I cannot be filled with the Spirit while at the same harboring sin or conducting my life in the energy of the flesh.  The verb form is the present tense meaning that it is a continuous appropriation.  I must stay filled!  I need to walk in conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit every moment of the day.             
  1. Keep totally surrendered to God. I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1). This verse reveals the ultimate key to the victorious Christian life. It is of little good to know theoretically the truths of Romans 6-8 if the body is not surrendered so that the life of Christ can be expressed in our everyday walk.  God does not compel and coerce us into presenting our bodies to Him. He does not corral us or bridle us like a horse and force us to obey. He wants an unbridled sacrifice so He simply pleads with us.  This is the appeal of love and the language of grace!

The church has always had and will always have those who have sought the “higher path”; the “more excellent way”; the “heights and depths of holiness”!  They have cooperated with the grace of God and found that joy-filled, abundant life in Christ.  It is also true that the church has also had and will always have those who have followed in what Wesley calls the “good way” – serving God to their degree – yet failing to know experientially “what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Eph. 1:17-19).

As for me, I want to cooperate as fully with the grace of God as I possibly can so that I may know “ the riches of His glory” and what it means to be “strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in my heart through faith; that I, being rooted and grounded in love,  may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—  to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; so that I  may be filled with all the fullness of God”(Eph. 3:16-19). My benedictory prayer for each one who has followed this series is Ephesians 3:20-21:

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus  throughout all generations, for ever and ever!


[1] Richard Taylor, Life in the Spirit, (Beacon Hill Press, Kansas, MO., 1966).

The Disciplines

The means of providing structure and space for spiritual formation to occur.

            I regularly meet Christians who desire to have a deeper life in Christ. They often express it in statements very similar to these: “I feel so shallow! I am struggling with prayer and I don’t feel that I am getting very much out of my Bible reading” or “I am spiritually dry and rarely, if ever, sense God’s love and assurance”    My follow up questions often reveal two things. First, the lack of a consistent investment of quality time in the development of their spiritual life.  Second, they clearly lack the knowledge of how to develop spiritual depth.  Almost without exception, the person asking the question is part of a church where there is no general culture of practicing the spiritual disciplines nor is there any place given to teaching about them.  And when the disciplines are ignored, you will find a group of men and women with desire and desperation gnawing at their hungry souls – longing to be led deeper into what they have already found in Christ.

The classical disciplines of the spiritual life have been practiced by Christians for centuries as a means or channel for the Holy Spirit to do His work of developing vigorous, dynamic spirituality.  The church has always linked the desire for more of God to intentional practices, relationships and experiences that gave people space in their lives to “keep company” with Jesus[1].  The disciplines or practices followed by the first believers are found in Acts 2:42: “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [a practice] and the fellowship [relationships], to the breaking of bread [an experience] and to prayer [a practice].”  These intentional practices, relationships and experiences are what we know as spiritual disciplines.

The Role of the Disciplines?

The disciplines are a way of ordering our life around values, practices and relationships that keep us open and available to God for the work of spiritual transformation that only God can bring about[2].  Dallas Willard says, “We meet and dwell with Jesus and His Father in the disciplines for the spiritual life[3]”. Participating in these spiritual practices is one way we cooperate with God in making room for Him to work in our lives.   Though the various spiritual disciples are not salvific nor do they make a person spiritually superior, they do create the conditions in which grace may flow more freely into our lives.

John Wesley called these practices the “means of grace.”  By this he meant the specific channels through which God conveys grace to His people.  While He acknowledged that the means of grace themselves have no salvific worth, he saw them as channels by which the Holy Spirit ministers grace to our hearts. He further believed that through participation in the instituted means of grace a person can be made aware of the pardoning and empowering presence of Christ on a regular basis.

The Disciplines are not Transformation by Human Effort

             No one claims that the various spiritual disciples have saving value in themselves. Righteousness is a gift from God that we graciously receive (Rom. 5:17).  The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. It is not the spiritual disciplines that transform us into the likeness of Christ.  That is the work of the Holy Spirit (II Cor. 3:18) and without Him these practices are fruitless.  Willpower and discipline alone can never fix the soul. Striving, pushing and trying harder will never bring spiritual victory over sin or transform ones inner man into the likeness of Christ. Paul makes it clear that regulations, disciplines and all forms of self-imposed human effort will fail when he says, “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 3:23).  Actually, disciplines done for the wrong reason will sabotage transformation and numb us toward God and the truth[4].

Spiritual practices do not “twist God’s arm” into getting what we want.  They do not give us “spiritual brownie points” or help us “work the system” for a passing grade from God. Simply put, spiritual disciplines help put us in a place where we can begin to notice God and respond to His Word to us.  They give the Holy Spirit space to brood over our souls, birthing the ever-fresh Christ-life within.  They provide us with the space to “keep company” with Jesus and find His rest for our weary souls (Matt. 11:28-30).

Partnering with God

             However, once we understand that inner transformation through the human powers of will and determination will end in failure, we are in danger of an error in the opposite direction. We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do.  There are those who have abandoned the disciplines and the whole idea of spiritual formation as an erroneous view of sanctification.  However, to reject the disciplines wholesale is to insist that growth in the spirit is something that just happens all by itself.  It is hard to see how any serious disciple of Jesus could possibly believe that.  Paul says, “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8). Paul’s analogy of farming activity is very helpful.  A farmer is helpless to grow anything; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of a crop. He plows the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the crop.

This is the way it is with the spiritual disciplines – they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where He can work within us and transform us. Any discipline that does not help us to partner with the Triune God for spiritual growth is an empty worthless act and a perfect waste of time. The disciplines must, by their very nature, get us to the place where God can do something in us.  They are God’s means of grace[5].  While at the same time it is up to us to arrange our lives and put into practice the disciplines. Dallas Willard’s famous quote says it well, “Grace is not opposed to effort it is opposed to earning.”

 The Disciplines

Historically the spiritual disciplines are divided into three areas: inward, outward and corporate.

InwardThe inward disciplines are practiced in the privacy of our own personal walk with Jesus. They focus on the transformation and development of the inner aspects of the human person.  These practices nurture the heart and soul of the believer. They include prayer, Scripture reading, meditation, silence, fasting and journaling.

Outward – The outward disciplines focus on the social and behavioral aspects of spiritual formation.  The outward spiritual practices include: blessed subtraction (taking away specific things in your life), solitude, acts of mercy, physical exercise and tithing.

Corporate The corporate disciplines help us participate in practices of accountability through community and worship.  The corporate spiritual practices include public confession of sins, participation in public worship, celebration and accountability by a spiritual director or small-group leader.  This aspect of spiritual formation acknowledges that our formation takes place in the context of community and social interaction.

Dallas Willard takes a different approach and divides the disciplines into disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement[6].

Abstinence – The disciplines of abstinence detach us from hurry, clutter and busyness.  They help to create space to be with God alone.  The word “asceticism” is the correlate of a Greek word for “training”, as in an athlete training for a race.  If you practice self-denial, then you will know that those who deny themselves will be sure to find “their strength increased, their affections raised and their inward peace continually augmented.[7]”  The disciplines of abstinence include: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy and sacrifice.

Engagement – The disciplines of engagement connect us to the needs of others and the call to be God’s heart and hands in this world.  They help the soul to be properly engaged in and by God. The disciplines of engagement include: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession and submission.

The spiritual disciplines are truly God’s gifts to us.  They are a means of grace – a spiritual practice – a way we connect to God and participate in our relationship with Him. As we open up our souls to God, He pours His own life and the grace we need into our hearts. When that happens, we will change; we will be formed and transformed into the image of Christ!

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook,(InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2005)

[2] Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms, (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL,2006)

[3] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 1988)

[4] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook,(InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2005)

[5] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 1988)

[6] Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, (HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY, 1988)

[7] W.R. Inge, Goodness and Truth, (London: Mowbray,1958).

Shaped By Scripture!

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work”  II Timothy 3:16-17

             Clearly one of the most important resources for spiritual formation is the Word of God. It is an essential source for defining the character and content of all true spiritual formation, while at the same time, it is the intrusive “action of the presence, purpose and power of God in the midst of our lives”[1].  The authors of Holy Scripture knew this and were rightly convinced that God moved them to write what they did for the spiritual benefit and gradual transformation of their readers.  And it will be in the process of our reading, studying and meditating upon scripture that the Holy Spirit will “teach, rebuke, correct and train” (II Tim. 3:16) us so that we become the kinds of persons God intends us to become – persons who bear the image of Christ.  Just as an infant is nurtured, educated, trained, disciplined and guided from infancy to full maturity, even so the Word of God is profitable for the purpose of  growing us into the kind of Christian that is “complete” and   “equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:17).

As powerful a change agent as the inspired Word is, it will, for the most part, be our approach to the Bible that will largely determine the measure and speed of our being transformed into the person God wants us to be. I mean by this, that the Bible has to be approached with an openness to encounter God by means of the Holy Spirit’s aid. Hungry, seeking hearts have been ushered into the presence, power and purpose of God while reading the Bible because they read with the intention of meeting God in the text!  Such an experience left them not only refreshed but equipped with truth and insight for life. While others found Bible reading a dead lifeless exercise because their approach was simply an academic exercise of trying to find some new nugget of truth to add to their store of knowledge about the Bible.

Reading for Formation versus Information

There is no doubt that the Bible is an amazing book of information – important information! It give us knowledge about many things that are crucial to sound doctrine and basic Christian living.  The pursuit of such knowledge is a noble pursuit and never to be minimized.  Nevertheless the Bible is not simply a textbook that is to be studied solely for what one might learn. It is the divinely inspired, living Word of God.  And the ultimate goal of study for Christians as Christians must be to encounter the living God as he has revealed Himself in Christ aided by the personal presence of the Holy Spirit.  The Bible must speak to our heart as well as to our head.  It must engage our spirit, emotions and will as well as our mind.  Only as the Word of God touches our deepest self, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can it bring powerful, dynamic, spiritual formation in Christ.

Lovingly Intrusive

There is nothing aloof, cold or distant about Scripture.  It is powerfully personal and deeply intrusive. It will always probe us at the points of our unlikeness to Christ.   The Hebrew writer tells us that the, “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). When we read the Bible for formation rather than just information, we are humbly opening up ourselves to God, through the Word and Spirit, to put a “finger” on those things in our lives that are inconsistent with His will for our wholeness and holiness.  The touch of His finger on some area of sin or brokenness; or the touch of His finger on some closed door in our heart is not to simply point out our flaws or educate us about what needs to be changed, but rather He touches us with His finger in order to let us know that there is a hand attached that offers us the nurture into wholeness that we need at that point. This concern for our well being is the essential nature of God’s knock upon the closed door of our lives.  The knocks come at those points where God is shut out of our lives; and we are imprisoned within, imprisoned by some bondage that does not allow us to be free in God’s love and in God’s will for our wholeness and holiness.  Reading scripture for spiritual formation will leave no part of our life untouched by the good hand of a loving God.

Scripture seeks to form us from the Inside Out not the Outside In

True spiritual formation seeks to transform the inside – the heart – the character of my inner man. This is always the focus of Scripture.  The Bible teaches us that “we live from the heart” (Prov. 4:23) and it is in our hearts that we are called to be made new when we come to God.  Real transformation must start there first.  Yet, for a variety of reasons, we find it easier to engage in the outside work of doing, rather than allowing the Word and Spirit to sanctify us through and through bringing about real and lasting change.   Matt. 23:25-28 is a great example of confusing the outer appearance of doing with the inner reality of being.  The Pharisees somehow confused the idea that doing guaranteed the quality of being – the quality that God wants. This flaw of thinking often follows those who only read the Bible from the standpoint of information – or as in this passage from a standpoint of do’s and don’ts. List making is easy.  But follow up obedience to a structure imposed from without will not be so easy when the heart has not been transformed and formed by the Word and Spirit. Ultimately all doing, both good and bad, flows from our being.  The Word of God seeks to shape our inner being so that doing the things God wants us to do become second nature.  This is where the Holy Spirit will focus His work of sanctification.  This is always the goal of scriptural formation (John 17:17).

 Partnering with the Word and Spirit

There are those (particularly the five point Calvinists) who demean spiritual formation as a false view of the sanctification process and lump all such activity in the rubbish bin of works righteousness.  Such a view, no matter how well intentioned, is simply contrary to Scripture. David said in Psalm 63:8, “My soul followeth hard after thee . . .” The kind of spiritual formation that helps us to know God intimately and transforms us into the image of Christ does not just occur automatically without any human cooperation.   Rather, it is a partnership of human effort and Divine grace. Paul described it like this, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” ( Phil. 2:12-13). “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (I Cor. 15:10).  These passages of scripture clearly show a partnership of human engagement guided and enabled by Divine grace.  Spiritual formation is never merely a matter of unaided human willpower taking over the sanctification process – a process that is clearly accomplished through the Word and Spirit (John 17:17; I Thess. 4:8 and 5:23).  Rather, it is rooted in the deep work of God in our hearts, arousing hunger, creating the desire to know Him and motivating us to seek change in our lives.  The impulse to pursue God originates with Him, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him.  The Word of God is a powerful change agent.  But it can only produce change if we read it!

This is true to our Wesleyan heritage. Wesley never created a method of Bible study but he personally observed the ancient Christian practice of “sacred reading” ( lectio divina)[2] and he offered some general guidelines in the preface to his Old Testament Notes for how one might approach scripture with the goal of spiritual formation in mind. I have updated the language to make it easier to understand his intent.

 Wesley’s Guidelines for Reading the Scriptures[3]

  1. Set apart a time each day, morning and evening if possible, to read the Scriptures. The inference here is that we make it a habit to dedicate the best possible time of our day to the unhindered reading of the Bible.
  2. At each time, read a chapter out of the Old and one out of the New Testament. If this is not possible then focus on a single chapter or a part of a chapter. I believe Wesley is indicating that we should have an orderly, systematic means of working through the Bible and that we should do so with relatively small units of scripture.
  3. Read with a focus to know the whole will of God and a firm commitment to do His will as it is revealed to you. The Word of God should both enlighten and change us.
  4. As you read, look for any connection, clarification and explanation you might find between the fundamental doctrines of original sin, justification by faith, the new birth, inward and outward holiness. Wesley is saying that the Bible is not a collection of isolated pieces. We are dealing with one great body of truth that reveals God’s redemptive purposes, His active presence in our lives and His power to change us into the kind of persons He wants us to be.
  5. We should pray before, during and after our time of Bible reading because scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit that gave it. Prayer should accompany our reading of the scriptures.  We should pray to be opened up at the deepest levels of our being and pray for the Holy Spirit to make the Living Word of God a transforming means of grace to us.
  6. We should frequently pause as we read and examine ourselves by what we read both inwardly in our hearts and outwardly in our lives. And whatever light we receive, we should promptly obey it by its immediate application in our lives. Quiet reflection and self-examination that is: prompted by the Word of God; enabled by the Holy Spirit; and carried out in the context of grace can result in great spiritual blessing if we walk in the light of what has been revealed to us.

John Wesley wrote in the preface to his standard sermons the following words that encapsulate the passion of what I have endeavored to say in this article. “I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me”.[4]  The only thing more to the point than Wesley’s words are the powerful words prayed by Jesus for every future disciple, “Sanctify them through thy truth, thy Word is truth” (John 17:17).

[1] M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Shaped by the Word, (Nashville, TN, Upper Room Books, 2000).

[2] Diane Leclerc & Mark A. Maddix, Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm (Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, KS, 2011)

[3] John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. (Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, KS, 1979), XIV, 252f.

[4] Thomas Jackson, ed., The Works of Wesley, 3d ed. (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI., 1882).

Christ formed in you!

“The goal of all spiritual formation is the transformation of the disciple into the likeness of Christ”

             In this series of articles on Spiritual formation, I have made the central goal of spiritual formation Christlikeness.   I must pause here and ask my readers to honestly ask themselves if they truly believe that one can be so thoroughly transformed in the inner man that one can do as Christ would do if He were here in our situation.   Is the Biblical teaching that we are to be conformed to the image of Christ a reality that one can experience and know in this present life or is it nothing more than a lofty ideal for which one can only strive, yet never attain?  Can one truly experience the kind of character transformation through both the instantaneous workings of the Holy Spirit and the incremental progressive workings of the Holy Spirit, so that our outer conduct can and should become a natural expression or outflow of the character and teaching of Jesus? Can this life be sustained and enabled as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit?  Is there even any Biblical rationale and motivation for this kind of life? Is faith in Christ something that only should make us uniquely like Christ not that actually does or can make us like Him?  Can Jesus become so much so the center of our life that all of our life flows from Him?

These are important questions and how one answers them will certainly determine whether or not one will ever personally know what it means to have “Christ formed in you”.  It will further determine whether one even considers it important to live a life like Christ lived or to take the idea of following His commands seriously.

The search for the answer must begin in Scripture and not just in what one sees or hears at church. Far too many churches today are full of people who haven’t ever been invited to become disciples. Being a Christian in many churches today means nothing more than going to church and being saved when you die. They have an emphasis that has been given over to “making the final cut” and solving problems (marital problems, witnessing problems, apologetics, pain and suffering) rather than the central Biblical theme of being a disciple of Christ[1].

A prominent Christian teacher, who has sought to exemplify Christ in his personal life and given most of his public ministry to teaching others how to do so, was asked in an interview what drove his passion to live such a life and teach others to do so.  He answered, “The Great Commission” (Matt. 28:19-20). He went on to say that in his early ministry he was troubled by a growing realization that the last phrase of this commission of Jesus was not being fulfilled in his ministry and he was determined to do something about it[2]. He was referring to that second part of the Great Commission that says, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20a).  Consequently, he has given his life to living out and teaching others what this part of the great Commission truly means.

       Biblical expectations of Christlikeness

            The Bible basis for the call to Christlikeness is not a single text, for the basis is more substantial than can be summed up in one text.  The basis consist of three texts:

Romans 8:29 – “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son”.  This text reveals God’s eternal purpose in making us like Christ.

II 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 . . .” This text reveals God’s present redemptive work of transforming us into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

I John 3:2 – “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears[a] we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is”.  This text gives us God’s final eschatological purpose, namely we shall be like Him.

 How is Christ formed in us?

If you are one of those earnest Christians that truly desire to be Christlike, you may well be frustrated and confused as to how it actually happens.  The Apostle Paul gives us three important phrases that shows us that the development of Christlikeness involves both what God does and what we do in cooperation with Him.  Those phrases are:

  1. ” revealed in” – “But when it pleased God . . . to reveal His Son in me” (Gal. 1:15-16).
  2. living in” – “I am crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me…” (Gal. 2:20).
  3. formed in”“My children, with whom I travail again in birth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).

Divine Intervention

The passages above teach us that the first way we become Christlike is through Divine intervention.  We cannot do it on our own but God must do it in us.  The means of this transformation is:

By Grace: “For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:17).  Grace is God’s acting in our lives, enabling us, to accomplish what we can’t accomplish.  In this instance it is Christ working to make us Christlike.

By the Holy Spirit: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (II Cor. 3:18).  It is not by the means of imitation that we become Christlike but by the means of transformation that “Christ liveth in me”.

By Faith: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 5:20).  It is really quite simple.  The Son of God comes and shapes us from within by the ongoing supply of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit and this miraculous work happens through faith.

By the Word:So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). God’s Word is the ultimately change agent for spiritual transformation into the image of Christ.

 An Intentional Partnership

Cooperation: We must not only allow God to work His transformation within us but we must also partner with Him to make this transformation complete.  This is not “works righteousness” this is simply partnering with God as taught in Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”.  As Dallas Willard says, “Grace is not opposed to effort it is opposed to earning.”  Col. 3:2-17; Romans 12:9-13.

Concentration: We can choose and must choose what we want to focus on and if we want to cultivate and have the mind of Christ.  Romans 8:5 – “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit”.  Col. 3:1-2 –   “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth”.

Pitfalls in the Process

Like Simon who wanted to buy the “gift of God” with money and like the Pharisees who “do all their deeds to be seen by others”, one can try to “mimic” Christlikeness with external manifestations of what we think “Christlikeness” is.   “Externalism” as we might call it was a danger the NT church faced constantly.  To strive to merely act in conformity with perceived expressions of Christlikeness is to attempt the impossible – it will only increase the “righteousness of the scribe and Pharisee” – it will not achieve true Christlikeness.

 The Goal

Formation in Christ is oriented toward explicit obedience to Him.  The transformation of the heart, by grace, into a state of obedience to “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” is the inner condition that allows the Holy Spirit to enable the outer life of the individual to naturally express the character and teachings of Jesus. What Jesus said to those first disciples, he now ways to us “follow me”.  If we will do that, we will find the life He wants us to live!


[1]Jan Johnson, Apprentice to the Master, an interview With Dallas Willard.

[2] Michael John Cusick , Restoring the Soul, an interview With Dallas Willard.

The Goal of the Holy Spirit in Spiritual Formation

While visiting his grandparents, a little boy decided to entertain himself by drawing.   His grandfather in passing asked, “What are you drawing?” to which he replied, “A picture of God.”  Amused, his grandfather said, “You can’t do that because nobody knows what God looks like.” To which the little boy responded, “They will when I get through!”

Imagine with me that you are on your knees praying, and you ask the Holy Spirit, “Why are you so busy in my life?  What are You up to?” And He replies, “I am transforming your inner person – renovating your whole character into the image of Christ.”  “Why?” you respond, “Nobody knows what He looks like!”  To which He replies, “They will when I am done with you.”

No serious Christian can escape the question: Is there a single divine strategy that unites all of the many-sided works of the Holy Spirit as a means to one end? Is there a goal to which His work of empowering, enabling, purifying and transforming is ultimately directed?  The Holy Spirit clearly mediates the presence of Jesus to us so that we may know and experience personal intimate fellowship with Jesus.  He constantly seeks to assure us of the certainty of being loved, and accepted as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17).  But His one single objective in all of this is to transform our personal character into the likeness of Christ – that is to make us holy!

Why Holiness?

I believe the aim of God in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with God himself at the very center of this community as its prime Sustainer and most glorious Inhabitant[1].  This is what God had with Adam and Eve before the fall. It is what He will have in the New Heaven and Earth; and it is what He is working toward right now in the whole scheme of redemption through the Church.  Holiness then is both God’s gift as well as His command. It the goal of all his providential dealings with us (Eph. 1:4; 5:25-26; 2:10; Rom. 12:1-2; II Cor. 7:1). The Holy Spirit is the chief agent in implanting a passion for holiness in our hearts at the moment of our new birth and in making it a reality through the whole process of His sanctifying work in our hearts and lives.

What is this Holiness?

            Holiness is a thoroughly Biblical concept that is divinely revealed through the Biblical writers.  Any adequate definition of holiness is based on God’s holiness and His call to us that we “be holy” (I Peter 1:15; Matt. 5:48). We know the character of God only through God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ and through the Bible’s witness to Him. And we know the holy life to which we are called as Christians only because God has revealed it to us through the life of Christ and through the Scriptures[2].  Therefore, in a word, holiness is God-taught, Spirit-wrought Christlikeness.[3] The very first words Jesus spoke to His disciples, “follow me”, had not only directional implications but replicational implications. If we claim to be followers of Christ, then we must be like Christ.  In the very last sermon John R. W. Stott ever preached, he states that Christlikeness was God’s eternal purpose (Rom. 8:29); is presently His historical purpose (II Cor. 3:18); and will be His final eschatological purpose (I John 3:2).[4]

What does Holiness  look like as it is formed in us?

           If holiness looks like the restoration of the image of God in us, then holiness also looks like Christlikeness, for Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and the “exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). It is in Christ that we have the best, most practical, most human example of what it means to be holy. He is our model for love (John 13:34; Eph. 5:2); He is our model for easy relaxed obedience (John 6:38; 14:31); He is our model for humility (Phil. 2:5-8); He is our model for virtue or moral blamelessness (John 8:46; Titus 2:11-12; Rom. 6:12-14);  He is our model for steadfastness (I Peter 4:1-2); He is our model for complete dependence on and total cooperation with the Holy Spirit ( John 5:30; John 15:5; Gal. 5:25).

Is it really possible?

Union with Christ (Rom. 6:5-6), putting on Christ (Rom. 13:14), identifying with Christ in His death and resurrection (Rom. 6-8), following after Him in obedient love (John 14:15) and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5) all have serious behavioral ramifications that clearly impact the way we live and conduct our lives.  So yes, it is possible to live a Christlike life.  However, it is not possible in our own strength.  It is only possible through the power of the Holy Spirit.  As we experience both the instantaneous workings of the Holy Spirit and the incremental progressive workings of the Holy Spirit, our outer conduct can and should become a natural expression or outflow of the character and teaching of Jesus.[5]  This is the primary goal of the Holy Spirit in our lives and the chief end to all spiritual formation.


[1] Gary Moon, Eternal Living, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. Quote by Dallas Willard, p. 39.

[2] Diane LeClerc, Discovering Christian Holiness, Beacon Hill Press, Kansas City, KS. p.34.

[3] J.I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI. p. 81.

[4] John Stott, The Radical Disciple, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. P. 31.

[5] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO. p. 22.