Spiritual Formation

 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror 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.       2 Corinthians 3:18

The Bible assumes it to be self-evident that we can know God intimately. On almost every page of Holy Writ we meet a God who affects us and is affected by us.  The Old Testament reveals Him speaking, pleading, loving, working and manifesting Himself to His people.  He walks with Adam and Eve in the garden, eats with Abraham by his tent, and argues with Moses on the mountaintop.  The gospels give us a front row seat as the eternal Son wraps the garments of human flesh about him, steps onto the stage of life and interacts in loving relationship with those he meets.

The Early Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, taught that Christian spirituality involves a deepening trust and developing friendship with God for all Christians.  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, in order that we may be formed into the character or likeness of Christ (personal holiness).

Moving towards a Process

John Wesley, more so than any other Reformer, took an explicitly systematic approach to spiritual formation.  The class meetings and the careful application of the spiritual disciplines, as a means of grace, preserved the fruit of the Wesleyan Revival and for a hundred years afterwards turned Methodists converts into stalwart saints.   This vision for spiritual formation was highly effective because it 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), so much so, that he begins his account of “Genuine Christianity” by describing it in terms of a heart shaped or formed by the Spirit.

We live from the Heart

Dallas Willard, whose spiritual formation emphasis was influenced by Wesley, says correctly that “we live from the heart” (Prov. 4:23).   The Bible says that the “heart” is the metaphorical center of our life and it is in our hearts that we are called to be made new when we come to God.  This “spiritual center” has been defiled by sin, developed by the experiences of life and formed by the choices that we have lived through or made in our past.   This is what it means to be formed. Out of this formation we see the world; interpret reality; make our choices; and break forth in action.  Put simply, “out of the abundance of the heart  . . .” all life flows.  Based on this reality, Willard says that the greatest need of collective humanity is the “renovation of the heart”!  It has been formed by a world away from God.  It is defiled and damaged by sin. Hence it must be regenerated and renovated so that out of a transformed heart we can live a transformed life.  The process that we go through to make all of this happen is called Spiritual Formation.  Dallas Willard defines this process like this:

Spiritual formation is the Spirit driven organized process that God uses to form our inner being in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.

Robert Mullholland states it succinctly when he says that spiritual formation is:

            “the process of being conformed to Christ for the sake of others.”

If this formation to the inner life is successful, then the outer life of the Christian becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus. Thus the goal of all true spiritual formation is obedience or conformity to Christ that flows from an inner transformation of the heart.  This level of spiritual maturity allows us to exercise an easy relaxed obedience to all that God ask or requires.  It also enables us to effortlessly do what Christ would do when in our situation.

It is important to note that the goal of spiritual formation is not “external” manifestations of Christlikeness.  If this becomes the goal, defeat and deadly legalism are certain to follow.  We will become judgmental, critical and performance oriented.  The goal of spiritual formation is to renovate the heart and form the character of the inner man, so much so, that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are at the center of the deep habit-structures of one’s life.  This is far more than merely altering ones personality to fit ones presumed ideas of Christlikeness. Spiritual formation goes beyond the mere external personality of a man or woman and seeks to transform the heart so thoroughly that one is able to “love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind; and love our neighbor as ourselves.” This alone prepares us to effectively live and labor in the kingdom of God (Eph. 1:3-4; I Peter 2:9; Rom. 8:29).

Understanding the Big Picture

          This kind of spiritual formation is a process that includes both pivotal and incremental change.   A lost man can be saved in the miracle of a moment, but transforming that same man into a mature disciple of Christ takes years of disciplined commitment to time honor processes.      However, the “big picture” of spiritual formation has three significant components: First, one must pursue God with the intent of knowing Him personally and correctly.  As we know God rightly, we can learn what it is that He expects from our lives.  Second, one must be willing to see himself – to see both the defilement and the damage that sin has wrought in his life. Third, one must be willing to encounter the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that enables one to become all that God desires one to be.  He alone has the power to cancel our past sin, cleanse our hearts, conquer our problems and change the person we are presently into the person that God’s says we can be.  Interspersed through these three big picture steps are the application of the spiritual disciplines.

The Goal

I believe the ultimate goal of spiritual formation is to create a community of “called out” ones; who have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirt; who enjoy a life of victory over sin and circumstance; and who loved God supremely and one another selflessly; so that this community may become a “touch point between heaven and earth, where the healing of the cross and the power of the resurrection can save the lost and grow the saved into the fullness of human beings in Christ”.  This is the church as she ought to be.  This is the kingdom of God on earth!

Do You Love Me?

Jim Cymbala recently remarked that, “our people will pay good money to go hear some Christian musician but they won’t come to meet with Jesus for free.”  This stinging rebuke points to something deeper than Christians with misplaced priorities.  It points to Christians who have a problem with love – or more precisely, a lack of it.

 

When Jesus proclaimed to His followers that the greatest of all commandments was to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind (Mt 22:37), He was not only prioritizing the most important of all Biblical commands, but He was declaring that the fundamental relationship binding us to Him is one of love.

 

What does loving Jesus mean?

 

Jesus tells us in the Gospels that loving Him does not consist in saying, “Lord, Lord!” but in doing the Father’s will and in keeping His words (Mt 7:21-29).  When we speak of loving another person, we mean that we seek the good of the person loved.  It means that we desire and seek to procure that person’s well-being. However, there is no good that we can desire for Jesus that He does not already have. Hence, for Him, all the loveliest qualities of loving are subsumed in that simple act of “doing the Fathers will.”

 

How can we cultivate love for Jesus?

 

            Jesus is not merely a historical figure, a philosophical concept or a remote invisible Deity.  He is truly God yet truly man.  He is a living person who is a “you” and a “friend.”  He is someone who can be loved and someone who reciprocates our love!  The saints have given us multiple examples of this love relationship.  Paul’s love for Jesus was such that he wished to be released from the body in order “to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).  The Apostle John often referred to himself as that “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). On the eve of his martyrdom, Ignatius wrote, “All I desire is Christ . . . I seek Him who died for me, I desire Him who rose again for me”!  How can we cultivate this level of love for Jesus as well as this level of awareness of His love for us?

 

There are no married couples who cultivate their love for each other in exactly the same way.  Each couple has their own preferred way that works best for them. However, there are common means that can be witnessed in the lives of all married couples who seek to cultivate a deeper love relationship.  The same is true in the cultivation of love for Jesus.  Individually we might have our preferred means, but there are certain common means that Christians have used for centuries in developing such love.

 

One of the primary ways saints have cultivated love for Jesus is through the means of grace: studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, contemplation, good works toward our fellow man, singing to the Lord (private worship) and receiving Holy Communion.  The faithful pursuit of these means will enable us to “know (experientially) the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (comprehension)” (Eph. 3:14-19). It is important to add that these practices must be enabled and aided by the Holy Spirit. The most brilliant and acute Christological analysis, void of the Holy Spirit, will reveal nothing transformative nor increase our love for Him.  Jesus is not revealed by “flesh and blood,” that is to say by human brain-power and research, but by “the Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).  It is the Holy Spirit who reveals Jesus to us and enables us to love what we see in Him.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings life to what would otherwise be dead works.

 

The Apostle John provides another way to increase our love for Jesus.  In 1 John 2:5 we learn that, “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” My studies in spiritual formation have taught me that formation in Christlikeness is oriented toward explicit easy obedience.  It is also true that as we go deeper in obedience to Jesus we increase our ability and capacity to love Him.

 

Jesus gave us insight in how to love Him more in the Sermon on the Mount. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Mt 6:24).  John tells us to, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).  There is a law of moral affinity and it will develop in us either a love for Jesus or a love for this present world depending on what we set our affections upon.  There is no middle ground or safe zone where we can love them both. If you wish to grow in your love for Jesus, then the love of this present world can have no place in your heart.

 

Someone has said that at the end of life we shall be examined about love.  If that is true, the question we face might be, “How much did you love Me?”  In light of such a possibility, it could be profitable from time to time to let the question of Jesus to Peter, “Lovest thou me?” speak freely to our inner man to see if we can honestly respond,   “Lord thou knowest that I love thee.”

Notes from my Prayer Journal Part III

In my last two articles I mentioned that I have made 2016 my year of prayer. I did so in part to renew my own prayer life but also to learn more about prayer. In my first article (March Issue) I gave some general observations about prayer. In my second article (April Issue) I raised and then attempted to answer the basic question of why we pray. My answer to that question was that there is no better answer than simply the example of Jesus – “And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray . . .” The Son of God, who knew the wisdom of His heavenly Father above any of us, felt such a strong compelling need to pray that he made it a regular habit of His life.

Answering the question above, caused me to focus on the prayer life of Jesus. As I did I discovered something that is both fundamental and essential to our own prayer life. Jesus was able to pray with remarkable ease, under any circumstance, about anything, with complete confidence because He knew His Heavenly Father was absolutely trustworthy. The God Jesus reveals always has our ultimate good in mind. He has no malice or evil intentions. He is completely good. And the fact that He is also all-knowing and all-powerful makes his goodness even better. One can never develop a satisfactory prayer life until one knows that our Heavenly Father is entirely good, loving and trustworthy.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, they did so presumably because Jesus’ own prayer life was so vibrant and reflected such an easy uncomplicated trust in His Heavenly Father. One way Jesus used to teach them how to pray was to give them a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) that actually accomplished two things. First, it gave them the basic composition of a prayer. Second, it provided amazing insight into the nature of the God to whom they pray. To me, this second aspect is more important than the first because it fuels our faith by underscoring the trustworthiness and goodness of the God to whom we pray!

As we dismantle the various sections of the prayer we can clearly see the kind of God that Jesus came to reveal. The kind of God that is truly trustworthy!

“Our Father”- God is not distant sovereign but “Dear Father”. He desires to have intimate involvement in our lives. He is a God that is personal!

“Our Father who art in Heaven” – The Jewish understanding of heaven did not refer to a faraway place. Heaven referred to the surrounding atmosphere. He was telling His disciples that God is near. He is as close as the air you breathe.  He is a God that is present!

“Hallowed be thy name” – God is holy. There is nothing about Him that is bad or evil. He cannot sin nor participate in anything evil or wrong. His intentions for me are always good.  He is a God that is pure!

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – As the King who rules over all, He is a God that is powerful!

“Give us this day our daily bread” – God cares about our basic needs. He is a God that provides!

“Forgive us our trespasses . . .” – Richard Foster said, “At the very heart of God is the desire to forgive and to give.” He is a God that pardons!

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” – We all face trials, problems and sicknesses but our Heavenly Father always has the last word. Nothing can happen to us that God cannot redeem. He is a God that protects!

Trustworthiness in the One to whom we pray is crucial in developing a healthy vibrant prayer life. Praying the Lord’s Prayer and embracing what it teaches about our Heavenly Father was Jesus’ way of reinforcing this in the lives of His disciples. I believe it still works today. Try it with me in 2016!

This Thanksgiving – Focus on the Good

I recently held a revival meeting in Binghamton, New York, with a wonderful congregation, who is privileged to be shepherded by a fine man of God and his wife. God gave a gracious moving of His spirit, as well as a wonderful time of fellowship with the parsonage family. The pastor, Rev. Rowan Fay, is such a delightful man, full of optimism and cheer. In our conversations together, he was ever sharing something good about the people in the church or community or about someone both of us knew. It seemed that he spoke of every person in such delightful, positive terms. I became so intrigued by his genuinely positive evaluation of people that I asked him the “secret” to seeing the good in all men. He told me that his father, Rev. O.L. Fay, had instilled in him as a young man this philosophy. He would say, “Son, look for all the good in all the men which you can; and when you have found it, dwell on it until you know men for the good that is in them.” This little nugget of pure gold struck a responsive chord in my own heart. What a refreshing view of life!

The unfortunate truth is that far too many Christians have developed a view of life that has them focused on the bad. They are always looking suspiciously for the flaws, weaknesses and failures of others. If any good is seen or ever mentioned, it is only by accident and not by design. There are even those who almost feel that it is their Christian duty to speak of everything and everyone in somber, negative tones. What an awful view of life!

Christians who live out this simple philosophy of Brother Fay are just naïve people who are blind to all the warts and failures of others who are around them. Rather, they are those who have chosen to catch and possess the spirit of perfect love that is found in the New Testament. Jesus looked upon a renegade tax collector and saw a man—filled with potential. Jesus looked upon the emotionally volatile Peter and saw a “rock” of a man that would lead His church. The New Testament teaches us that perfect love enables us to “suffer long,” and “speak kindly” to and of our brothers. On the other hand, it is the writing of the book of Proverbs who tells us “the ungodly man digs up evil, and it is on his lips like a burning fire. A perverse man sows strife and a whisperer separates the best of friends.”

I know that a Dale Carnegie course or a Zig Ziglar seminar can teach a man how to have public optimism for the good of his business. However, I am convinced that it is only the work of God in the soul that can enable us to see the redeemable good in others, to dwell on that good, and to speak of others in kind and positive ways.

As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches, let me challenge you to look for all the good in all the men that you can; and when you have found it, dwell on it until you will know men for the good that is in them, so that on this Thanksgiving Day, you can thank God for good men.

Preaching is Indispensable to Christianity

Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. To set aside preaching would be to close the mouth and sever the legs of the Christian religion. Preaching has been central to the ministry of the Church historically, and especially so to those in the holiness tradition. The holiness movement has produced and profited from some of the greatest expositors and pulpiteers of this century. So why has the standard of preaching in the contemporary holiness church become so deplorable? Why are our finest preacher boys finding their heroes among popular Calvinistic communicators? Why are our parishioners turning to self-help counselors and psychologists rather than to faithful men of God for answers to life’s perplexing problems?

Much of the current uncertainty about preaching is due to a generation of preachers who have lost confidence in the Word of God. Too often the contemporary preacher uses the Bible as a curiosity shop. He peruses through it until some palatable proof text emerges as a snappy sound bite on which to tack his latest self-help lecture. These pulpit vagabonds fail to see that Scripture is the omnipotence of God unleashed through the spoken word, and that it holds the answers to life’s most desperate needs. When preached and responded to, it will radically change lives.

The art of preaching is further brought into scorn by preachers who have caved in to today’s culture. Ours is a culture that demeans the personal disciplines necessary to become an effective preacher. The ability to build bridges from the Word of God to contemporary life takes an unbelievable amount of hard work and study. A man who snubs through study will be doomed to mediocrity and ambiguity. Too many holiness pulpits lack a clear, definite, certain sound that is forged only on the anvil of study. So many church-goers are like the small girl wearied by empty utterances. She appealed, “Mother, pay the man, and let us go home.”

However, study alone isn’t the answer. Scholarship that isn’t steeped in prayer will yield barrenness. The preacher who allows day after day of prayerlessness to prevail in his heart need expect no grapes of Eschol to hang over the wall of his preaching on Sunday morning.

I have a major concern that today’s holiness pulpit suffers from a “lack of history.” Eugene Sterner, in his book Vital Christianity, wisely comments, “Clocks are corrected by astronomy. What good is a clock if it is not set by the stars? Without a sense of eternity [and history] you don’t even know what time it is.” The preacher who fails to understand his roots and properly appreciate his heritage is usually condemned to repeat its mistakes. Some view their heritage as a bothersome bundle of historical baggage burdening them down. They exaggerate the mistakes and eccentricities of yesterday’s pulpiteers in order to nullify the claims of their legacy, much like the adolescent craving freedom from restraint seeks to repudiate his father.

The effective preacher, without making the past a hitching post, does own his heritage, embraces it with gratitude, incorporates it into his identity, and utilizes it to the fullest in communicating eternal truth that rings with clarity.

Preaching is here to stay! Men who join hands with God and preach with certainty will find that through their labors God will advance His kingdom.

The Resurrection

William Sangster, the venerable British preacher of yesteryear, was stricken late in life by incurable muscular atrophy. As the merciless disease advanced, rendering his muscles useless and robbing him of his voice, Sangster was eventually forced to surrender his pulpit and retire his anointed pen. However, he did manage to find the strength one Easter Sunday to feebly scrawl these words in a letter to his daughter, “It is terrible,” he wrote, “to wake up on Easter Sunday and have no voice to shout, ‘He is risen!’”

With these words Sangster underscored the dynamic of the Christian message, the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is the fulcrum upon which turns every other Christian doctrine. Without resurrection, the divinity of Jesus is in jeopardy. Without divinity, Christ sinlessness is debatable. If He is sinful, Calvary loses its atoning merit. Robbed of its atoning merit, the cross—indeed the entire gospel story—is a sham. Or, as Paul expressed it centuries ago, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins” (I Cor. 15:17).

In his book, Reality of the Resurrection, Merrill Tyney notes that many aspects of the Christian faith are echoed (if only vaguely) in non-Christian religions. For instance, some religions claim, as does Christianity, to have divinely inspired writings. Muslims boast of the Koran; the Mormons of their “Golden Tablets.” Similarly, many pagan religions offer their followers the promise of life after death. Like Christianity, philosophers and religionists of all eras have proposed various systems of ethics for the governing of the human race. However, Tyney rightly declares that the distinctive attribute of the Christian faith is its belief that “the supernatural power of the living God was manifested historically by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.”

The resurrection marks Christianity off from all other religions, past, present and future. No other faith underpins its belief system with the doctrine of a risen Saviour. It is the cardinal doctrine among cardinal doctrines. It was central to the preaching of the early church. It sustained the hopes of first-century martyrs, and it is a message that has been faithfully transmitted across the centuries and entrusted to those of us who number ourselves among the followers of Jesus today. The resurrection message is non-negotiable. It must never be surrendered or compromised.

However, the greatest danger in the Christian community may not be the temptation to erase the doctrine of the resurrection from the time-honored creeds of Christendom. In fact, any suggestion to alter this tenet would immediately be voted down in most of our conference meetings or our academic forums. Rather, the greatest danger in our circles is that of relegating this basic doctrine to the dusty archives of church history. Having been hammered out on the anvil of controversy by our forefathers, the resurrection story tends to become so commonplace that it is by sheer neglect demoted to second place in our thinking. The resurrection and its manifold implications have become supplemental themes that we take off the shelf once a year. Sadly, they seldom maintain a central place in the perennial preaching and teaching of the Church.

Sangster lamented to his daughter that he had no voice with which to shout the resurrection message. But he then added these searching words, “It would be more terrible still,” he concluded, “to have a voice and not want to shout.” Reader, have you a voice? Use it to proclaim anew the blessed anthem, “He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!”

What Religion Do You Preach?

In his booklet An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, John Wesley tells of a man he once met who had fallen into deep despair and unbelief. Out of the bitterness of his soul, the man said to Wesley, “All is dark; my thought is lost. But I hear you preach to a great number of people every night and morning. Pray, what would you do with them? Whither would you lead them? What religion do you preach? What is it good for?” Wesley’s answer was remarkable:

“You ask what I would do with them: I would make them virtuous and happy, easy in themselves and useful to others. Whither would I lead them? To heaven; to God the Judge, the lover of all, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant. What religion do I preach? The religion of love; the law of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: To make them like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives; and crying out at their death in calm assurance, ‘O grave, where is thy victory! Thanks be unto God, who giveth me the victory through my Lord Jesus Christ.’”

Religion in its purest form is a fundamental set of beliefs, practices, and traditions through which the Christian faith is promoted and by which it is protected. But far too often, religion has offered a form empty of content and a ritual void of presence. It has, in too many cases, become a cold, sterile, unattractive practice that obscures the beauty of the gospel. Wesley’s answer offers a rare glimpse into a religion that is solidly scriptural, as well as winsome and beautiful. He saw the religion that he preached as one that offered the following:

  1. Happiness and peace as the fruit of transformed character.

I have never met a person who didn’t want to be happy, just as I have never heard of a religion that didn’t offer some means to happiness. But rarely do either talk about virtuous living as a key component to real happiness and peace. No one can find happiness and peace through his own efforts. Neither happiness nor peace are self-originating, but are the fruits of a redeemed and holy life.

Wesley offered a gospel that so transformed the life and so renewed the mind that the end result was a happy, contented, and useful life! “Oh the bliss of the pure in heart…” (Matt. 5:8).

  1. Heaven now and heaven to come.

Wesley wanted to get men to heaven, but he also wanted to get heaven into men here and now! Notice his words, “To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: To make them like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives….” Wesley understood that those who find great joy in God also find great delight in others and great strength in themselves—a recipe that allows one to accomplish more in one lifetime than would otherwise be possible. John Piper is right when he says that God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh.8:10).

  1. To know the one true God through Jesus Christ His Son.

Every human heart has within it the hunger to know and be known by God. Sadly many religions can’t seem to find the right balance. They create a God who is angry and distant or one that is tolerant and casual—neither of which are an adequate understanding of who God really is. Wesley’s view is both balanced and beautiful. He speaks of a “Holy God” that is the “Lover of all!” This is a God who is against sin—a Judge who condemns the transgressor but who also sends His own Son to die for that transgressor and be the mediator of a new covenant that will bring reconciliation and forgiveness to the condemned.

  1. Love enthroned.

Wesley says he preaches the “religion of love—the law of kindness.” To Wesley true religion was to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.”

This is religion controlled not by the letter of the law but by love—a love that is pure, patient, and kind. It is not a love controlled by passion but by pathos—not of emotion but disposition. There is no greater need in our world than a religion of holy love that flows outward in “kindness to all.”

5. Assurance.

Most of the religions in the world do not believe that one can be sure of personal salvation. Wesley, however, preached a religion that offered every man the “calm assurance” of eternal life. Wesley’s father, an Anglican priest, left these dying words: “The witness, son, the witness; that is the proof of Christianity.” In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley defines the testimony of the Spirit as “an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me, and that all my sins are blotted out and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” Religion is not often spoken of as something that is beautiful, but the religion that Wesley offered to the poor man drowning in despair is something that I find absolutely winsome. May the religion I preach be so!