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. Honestly ask yourself if you truly believe that you can be so thoroughly transformed in the inner man that you can act like Christ in every 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.
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. 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 consists 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.
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 . . .” This text reveals God’s present redemptive work of transforming us into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
1 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 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:
- “revealed in” — “But when it pleased God . . . to reveal His Son in me” (Gal. 1:15-16).
- “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).
- “formed in” — “My children, with whom I travail again in birth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).
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” (2 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 ultimate 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.” See Colossians 3:2-17 and 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. “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” (Rom. 8:5). “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” (Col. 3:1-2).
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 New Testament 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.
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!