The Heart of Spiritual Formation

The Heart of Spiritual Formation

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God in his sovereignty has ordained that his grace may come into the world through those who bear his image. us, our spiritual formation is measured by this restoration of image. “This is the heart of spiritual formation—the intentional, sustained re-patterning of a person’s life after the pattern set by God when he created human beings in his image, but made possible only by divine transforming power.”1

But the children God raised up have rebelled against him (Isaiah 1:2), and both image and relationship have been tarnished beyond our ability to restore. The sin of disobedience, a direct result of lack of trust in God, brought the separation which we call the fall from grace. In The Quest for Holiness: From Shallow Belief to Mature Believer, it was observed that Adam and Eve left the garden of Eden with natures very different from those designed by God. Though they were created to live and breathe in unison with God, their focus turned inward, away from God. is is how Martin Luther described sin—cor incurvatus ad se, the heart turned in on itself. Thus, as people who look to Jesus as Savior and Lord, ours is a journey of restoration. Now, every meaningful journey must have a goal, and the goal itself most often determines the value of the journey. So, what is the goal of spiritual formation? The answer is stated in different ways.

What Is the End Goal of Salvation

Some speak of the goal as Christlikeness, others speak of holiness, and some speak of the goal of the journey as the restoration of the image of God. Terminology aside, the goal is a radical change of heart. A heart turned in upon itself tries to find identity, meaning, value, and purpose in itself. “When we identify our self as separate and apart from God—the essence of the false self—we also identify our self apart from every-thing else. We orient our self at a distance from others. We position ourselves ‘over against’ the created order.”2 Since we were created in the image of God but have lost this image, a journey of radical transformation is to be the life of a follower of Jesus. This is easy to overlook when the church is so strongly focused on evangelism, hearing the good news, repenting, and receiving the gift of eternal life. These steps to our conversion are wonderful events, but they are not the end of our redemption. To fail to participate in the growth that comes after conversion is to leave an enormous gap in one’s life. Keith Meyer wrote about this in terms of the sanctification gap:

It is the missing element of life change or trans-formation that is called for in the Scriptures. It happens in the time between our conversion and our death, and it has been missing for the last hundred years since the great revivals. Our life on earth becomes more of a waiting room than an adventure or journey with God. . . . Many have given up on a life free of worry, lust, anger, contempt, gossip, and greed. . . . Perfecting or progressing in holiness is not expected in this life, despite the many Scriptures that claim this life is the only perfecting place we can expect.3

Let’s be perfectly clear: repenting and receiving the gift of eternal life is the essential first step in the restoration of our relationship with our Father in heaven. It is the first step, though not the final step. It is the unique first step in which we are forgiven by God’s grace through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and become children of our Father. Yet this is but the beginning, not the end, of God’s grace.

God’s grace continually draws us closer to him. As our initial salvation (conversion) is a gracious act of God, the working out of this salvation is a continuation of that grace (Philippians 2:12). In other words, as we are saved by the grace of God, we are also sanctified by the grace of God. Our sanctification (being made holy) is, after all, the will of God for us (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Thus, we understand that our transformation from rebellious enemy of God to child of God—and increasingly into the image of God—is a work of grace. The Holy Spirit is at work in the believer’s life convicting and teaching through the illumination of Scripture—the Word of the Father.

Seeing the Adjacent Possible

While interceding for us, the Holy Spirit shows us an alternative to a life of sinful disobedience and separation from God’s will. We are given a desire to live this life according to God’s design, empowered to live life with an ever-increasing trust in God. We participate in our sanctification through the means of grace, which include disciplines such as prayer, study of the Word, fasting, and solitude.

Seeing an alternative to disobedient separation from God means an increasing ability to see and understand our fallen self. But this is not merely for the sake of self-awareness. is changed view of self enables us to open areas of our lives to the Holy Spirit in prayerful petition for deeper transformation. It is a difficult, lifelong journey. A journey that must be pursued by the disciple of Jesus with the assurance of the love of God. Otherwise, it will almost certainly spiral down into defeat. The assurance of God’s love must be anchored in the understanding that we cannot earn or increase his love.

God does not love us for who we are, what we do, or what we accomplish. Quite simply—we are loved. With the knowledge of this love firmly in place, we can avoid slipping into the favor-earning pattern so typical of many relationships. Our relationship with God is refreshingly different from the demands of a performance-based acceptance style of relationship. You, as a believer, as a disciple of Jesus, have victory! You are a beloved child of God! Now, seek to be all Jesus saved you to be (Philippians 3:12)!

Are you interested in learning more about this topic? David Long wrote a book, The Quest for Holiness: From Deadly Sin to Divine Virtue. It’s a work that helps God’s people anchor themselves in God’s revelation that we are created in his image—this is the goal of our salvation. Get your copy from our store now.

1. Mel Lawrenz, The Dynamics of Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 145–46.

2. Robert Mulholland Jr., The Deeper Journey: The Spirituality of Discovering Your True Self (Downers Grove,IL: IVP Books, 2006), 29.

3. Keith Meyer, “Whole-Life Transformation,” in Alan Andrews, ed., The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation (Colorado Springs,CO: NavPress, 2010), 143.


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