As Christians, each follower of Christ is not called to a lukewarm, mediocre walk with God. Instead, if we are to be the best version of ourselves, we are to pay close attention to just what it is Christ is calling us to be. At times, when we truly analyze the claim and responsibility placed on us by Jesus, we might think it anything but an easy yoke. This is especially true when we read between the lines of what Paul is telling us is several of his letters.
Taken singularly, it is easy to perhaps miss the magnitude of the goal of Christian spiritual formation. I think this is one of the reasons that many Christians so often become so complacent in their faith. Each week they get dressed, go to church, sing a few hymns, take part in corporate prayer, listen to a sermon that waters down the gospel message, put their envelope in the collection plate, then speed to their favorite eatery before the waiting line gets too long.
To tell you the truth, somehow I think Jesus and Paul had more than this in mind. What Jesus had in mind was spelled out with clarity in the Sermon on the Mount, sort of a compact distillation of the kingdom principles he brought with him when he left the glories of the heavenly court and came a’callin’ on earth at that stable in Bethlehem. Let’s have a closer look at Paul’s take on what happened as a result of Christ’s mission.
I am certain you are aware of Paul’s idea, repeated in one way or another throughout his correspondence with the fledgling churches, of the relationship between Jesus and God. Paul tells us that all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in Christ, which meant that God and Jesus were in some mysterious way the same being. In the Jewish culture of his day, Paul was making an incredible claim here. Jews were not supposed to make any image of God and even to speak his name was considered a capital offense. Now, here was Paul echoing Jesus by implying that the great and mighty Jehovah was in essence a loving, cosmic “Daddy” who was not only the Father of Jesus, but was also Jesus himself. And the reverse was true. Jesus was not only a great teacher and a skilled Rabbi; He was not only a great healer and the leader, the Grand Poobah of a band of shady-looking disciples. Jesus, according to Paul, was Jehovah Himself.
Standing alone, that sort of statement was enough to give the High Priest a prize-winning wedgie. Paul, however, wasn’t finished. In fact, he was just getting started. If you take a look at Ephesians 3:19, the Apostle tells the early church members that he prays “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (NSRV) Here Paul was pulling no punches; instead, he went straight for the knockout. Paul basically was saying that he prayed that, as Christians, the new believers were expected to become like Jesus.
No wonder the religious establishment saw Paul as a dangerous, if not demented, man. Equating Jesus with God was a reach. Saying that a human being could become like Jesus was beyond the pale of acceptability.
In case his readers missed his point, the Apostle repeats this theme in the fourth chapter of Ephesians. In verse 13 he equates Christian maturity with the achieving “the measure of the full stature of Christ.” He then drives home the point two verses later by stating:
Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NRSV).
In case you might be thinking that this message was somehow only for the believers in Ephesus, think again. Let’s wander over to Corinth and take a look at one of Paul’s letters to this stressed out church. After briefly covering a few topics, Paul tells the Corinthian believers that we “beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness” (2 Cor. 3:18). Aiming his words in a different direction, Paul tells the Philippians to emulate the same manner of being that Jesus had (Phi. 2:5-8).
By now it should be clear that that Paul felt it essential to get this message across. He believed that in order to function as effective Christ-followers in their world, the members of the early church had to work, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, in securing personal change and continually grow toward the full stature of Christ. This was the goal for the early church and it is our goal for today.
The logical question at this point is: How am I supposed to pull this off?
It is here that we are confronted with one of the many paradoxical conundrums of the spiritual life. The first shall be last – the last shall be first – to save your life you must lose it – etc. For the theme we are discussing, we are confronted with the riddle of Christian spiritual formation. There is nothing that we can do to save ourselves or sanctify ourselves; it is all a free gift of grace and we just have to accept it. Still, Paul tells us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” So what gives here?
Some sincere believers will tell you to stay away from spiritual disciplines because they are, at the end of the day, useless. We are powerless to change ourselves; only the Holy Spirit can pull that one off. Some of these Christians will go so far as to tell you that engaging in the classical spiritual disciplines is like sleeping with Satan….all this spiritual formation mumbo jumbo smells like smoke and brimstone.
Other equally sincere Christians will tell you the opposite. Even though personal transformation is a free gift of grace, we have a responsibility as well. We have to place ourselves in a receptive position in order to maximize our potential for change. I confess that I am more in this camp than in the former. I believe that spiritual formation requires a good deal of effort on our parts. God makes it all possible, but we have to appropriate what he has made possible. It’s like the great Quaker mystic Rufus Jones often said:
“The grace of God is like the wind blowing across the lake. If you want to get to the other side, you have to raise your sail.”
© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved