What is Spiritual Formation?

Introduction

The process of spiritual formation is essentially taking on the character of Christ in the everyday life of the believer. This requires proper biblical interpretation of key spiritual forming scriptures and pragmatic application of those scriptures to the daily walk and ministry of twenty-first-century faith-based communities. This essay will analyze two crucial passages in Colossians and second Timothy that have a profound effect taking on the character of Christ considering the transformation process. This will include exegesis, practical application, and potential ministry uses to help others grow in Christ.

Colossians

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming. In these, you too once walked, when you were living in them.  But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.  Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free, but Christ is all and in all.  Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all this put-on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:1-14 ESV).

The historical significance of what was taking place in Colossae is important when exegeting this passage. There was a special heresey that arose in Colossae which provoked Paul to write this special epistle to the Church. This is what (in the second century) was later known as Gnosticism and attacked the deity of Christ.[1] This gave rise to Paul’s extraordinary apologia for the Lordship of Christ in this letter, to establish sound Christology in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, when Paul is exhorting that the life of a believer died with Christ, it is now hidden in God. Here he was telling the Colossians that living a life mirrored in Jesus is pleasing to God because Jesus is equal to God.

It is important to this passage that the reader understands the culture of the time and place in which Colossians was written; this speaks to the meaning of the passage in relation to morality. The city of Colossae was that of a pagan community. In pagan religions, morality and ethics were not intertwined with faith. Warren W. Wiersbe writes; “A worshiper could bow before an idol, put his offering on the altar, and go back to live the same old life of sin. What a person believed had no direct relationship with how he behaved, and no one would condemn a person for his behavior.”[2] This is important when considering this passage when Paul writes of idolatry it is in contrast to the pagan religion that was practiced in that city by most of its inhabitants. A Christian, risen with Christ is now tasked to walk as Christ walked, in kindness and meekness with compassion and humility (v.12). Paul is juxtaposing the life and moral direction of Christians with that of pagan worshipers who embrace “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (v.5).

This has many current applications for Christian life today. The believer’s faith in Christ is measured by his/her behavior toward others. Much like Paul was comparing the action of the Colossian’s church to the actions of pagan society, Christians today are measured against the secular world and its behavior. This is accomplished through the Word (Jesus Christ) of God. As Jesus sacrificed himself to God in order that believers may partake in his nature mentioned throughout this passage, they must learn to walk in this nature with one another giving ourselves as sacrifices to each other. Jordan Peterson explains: “Every bit of learning is a little death. Every bit of new information challenges a previous conception, forcing it to dissolve into chaos before it can be reborn as something better.”[3] The true disciple of Christ is now dead with Christ and hidden in God; this means discipleship is about living life for people, as Christ died for people, these are the only things that are “above.” Nothing makes it to heaven but people, the things of the earth fade away and people are all that matter. This is what Paul is speaking about in this passage, this is what discipleship looks like two thousand years ago and still looks like today.

Timothy

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began,  and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do (2 Timothy 1:8-12 ESV).

 The second letter to Timothy is unique in that Paul is writing directly to Timothy (who is overseeing the Church in Ephesus) and not specifically addressing the church. It is a letter of encouragement and exhortation into faithfulness in the face of hardship.[4] “They are known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles because they are written to individuals entrusted with the oversight of specific congregations, and they directly concern the roles and responsibilities of the pastor.”[5]  Although not every disciple of Christ is called to the pastorate or leadership, this epistle has a profound implication of what the call to follow Christ entails to each believer and extols the understanding of sacrifice in the role of spiritual formation.

As citizens of God’s Kingdom, how should live in the understanding that the gospel brings an amount of suffering that all who follow should embrace. This passage is clear in that Paul encourages Timothy to not be ashamed but share that suffering in the power of God. The righteous path is a path fraught with suffering. The Old Testament has similar exhortations; “offer the sacrifices of righteousness and put your trust in the Lord” (Psalm 4:5 ESV). This is a reminder that the way to salvation and through sanctification is not easy. The Christian life is a complicated one replete wit trials and tribulations and whenever this occurs, we are to put our trust in the Lord and in his power to overcome such hardships.

Taking on the character of Christ means suffering, but to understand this is to understand grace. The prominence of this passage is on grace. It is God who saved us, not ourselves (Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5). Therefore, if God calls us to suffer it is done in grace and by his grace that we endure and fulfill this calling.  “He called us, not on the basis of our good works, but wholly on the basis of His grace. It is His purposes that we are to fulfill; and if these purposes include suffering, then we can accept it by faith and know that God’s will is best.”[6] Paul is saying that not only leadership but all whom embrace and seek salvation through Christ does so by the grace of God and for the will of God. This was determined by God and for God before time and earth began (v.9) insomuch that we now can have full confidence that we are living the path God has ordained for us through his son Jesus Christ. 

Implications

Disciples of Christ are tasked to grow in Christ, conforming to his likeness and have that manifest in the outward community with others. These two passages have real-world implications considering this growth. In Colossians, Paul shows us what that character of Christ should manifest itself as; patience, forgiveness, humility toward one another, bearing the burdens of our neighbors. In addition, he warns Christians of what false faith looks like; idolatry, lustful desires, sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness. If disciples are truly transforming into the image of Christ, this is how to measure this process and hold it to the standards of Jesus. Although true perfection cannot be achieved, its process can be weighed against the evils of the secular world. The only way to recognize a true Christian is that of someone exemplifying a genuinely transformed life into the character of Jesus Christ.[7]

The second passage prepares and encourages the believer of the hardships that go with living out these principles and virtues in society. As believers, congregations, faith-based communities grow in spiritual transformation and thus display more and more signs of grace, hope, and forgiveness; the chances that evil will combat this daily is eminent. Just as Jesus suffered on the cross for humanity’s sins, so must the post-modern Christian suffer the consequences of sin in the world. This is not only the inevitability of the fall of mankind but also the will of God who predestined it. [8]

Conclusion

Realizing spiritual formation from a practical sense is freeing to consequences, it might bring into the life of a disciple. We are called to follow and grow in Christ’s likeness and this includes suffering. Discipleship without suffering is offered, nor is it biblical. It is the opinion of this author that prosperity, success, and blessings are too often taught in Church communities without spotlighting the cost. That cost was paid by the person and acts of Jesus Christ and if we are to follow his example, a certain amount of hardship is to be expected. Knowing and understanding God’s divine sovereignty over our salvation and suffering gives us freedom and peace to live our lives while taking on the character of Christ.

Bibliography

DeSilva, David Arthur. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods, and Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

MacArthur, John. “The Transforming Effect of Loving Christ.” YouTube. Grace to You, June 7, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsN153FaL4o.

Manser, Martin H. Zondervan Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 2009.

Peterson, Jordan B. 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos. London: Allen Lane, 2018.

Walvoord, John F., and Roy B. Zuck. The Bible Knowledge Commentary. an Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985.

Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. Vol. 2. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996.

Footnotes:      

[1] Norman L. Geisler, “Colossians,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 668.

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 133.

[3] Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (London: Allen Lane, 2018), 223.

[4] A. Duane Litfin, “2 Timothy,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 749.

[5] David Arthur deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 733.

[6]Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 242.

[7] John MacArthur, “The Transforming Effect of Loving Christ,” YouTube (Grace to You, June 7, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsN153FaL4o.

[8] Martin H. Manser, Zondervan Dictionary of Bible Themes: the Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: ZondervanPublishingHouse, 2009), page not available.

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