Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Call to Spiritual Formation (4)

Paragraph One

God calls us all to become like Jesus. Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”* We experience this abundance of life – here and now – as our passions, character, understanding, and relationships are increasingly aligned with those of Christ. This lifelong transformation within and among us is the continual gift of God’s Spirit. We are called to be renewed into the likeness of Jesus – but we do not always fully embrace this calling. Sometimes we seem content to be known as “Christians” without intentionally engaging with this work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Other times we desperately long for a new way of life, wanting to grow in our walk with Jesus, but needing help and encouragement. We, therefore, commit to pursue passionately and to receive joyfully God’s grace to be more fully transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.

This paragraph highlights what Richard Lovelace in 1973 identified as the “sanctification gap.” By the “sanctification gap”, Lovelace meant the huge gap that exist between what Christians know about God, profess about God, what God expects them to do, and how these Christians live out their daily lives. Often cognitive knowledge of God is not automatically translated into Godly characters. Numerous surveys have shown that there are not much difference between lifestyles of Christians and non-Christians. This is what exists in churches despite huge amount of effort and money being spent on Christian education, discipleship programs and teaching seminars. This is the key challenge facing Christian spiritual formation.

This paragraph contains the call of God (to become like Jesus) and our response (pursue passionately and to receive joyfully God’s grace). We all carry the sin-distorted image of God. It is God’s intention to restore his image in us. Anthony Hoekema (1986, 89) notes that “because Christ is the perfect image of God, becoming more like God also means becoming more like Christ.” This is God’s call to us (Galatians 4:19; Romans 8:29; 2 Corinthians 3:18).

Our response is to intentionally “pursue” and “receive.” There are a few points to note here. Firstly, evangelicals have this morbid fear of “work righteousness.” They have been so taken up by the image of the potter and the clay that they perceive themselves as inanimate lumps of clay – to be passively formed by the potter. Any effort by ourselves to draw closer to God is considered work righteousness and earning merits. Somehow, we confuse justification and sanctification. Justification is purely by grace and there is nothing we can do to earn it. Sanctification, on the other hand, is a process and needs work – not to earn righteousness but to become righteousness.

Secondly, it is possible to be a Christian and not grow spiritually (become more like Christ). Paul’s constant exhortation in his epistles to learn, pray and mature in the faith means that there are Christians who are not growing. They do not grow because they choose not to.

Thirdly, there are some Christians who are so triumphant in their beliefs that they believe they are already perfect now and do not need to grow. We need to only look at ourselves in the mirror to know that we are not there yet.

Finally, our response will not bear fruit without the Holy Spirit and God’s grace. Our response is to work with the Holy Spirit, allow him to work in us so that we may appropriate God’s grace that is so freely given to us.

In summary, the paragraph is important because shows what the call of God to us is – to become like his Son. It also highlights how vital our responses are. It boils down to a matter of personal choice.



  1. I think there are some Evangelicals who are so afraid of works-righteousness that they do nothing, but my experience has been the opposite. The idea, though never stated explicitly and probably unconscious, is that justification is by grace and sanctification is by effort. I see quite a lot of Evangelicals trying really hard to make themselves good.

    This touches on another point you make, that Christians don't grow because they choose not to. There are certainly those that fall into that category, but there are also those that are trying like crazy, but they only have ineffective tools. "I AM reading my Bible and praying, but nothing seems to happen!" they cry, desperate for something better but so narrowly focused that they can't escape their own mental structure of Christian life and practice. Again, maybe there is an unconscious refusal here, but we ALL have some measure of unconscious refusal.

    Sanctification is indeed a process, but I don't think it honestly takes any more effort than justification does. Justification requires us to let go of our drive to fix the problems of our spirits and allow God to redeem, and that can be monstrously difficult. Why is sanctification any different? We still rely on the work of the Spirit which requires our efforts to stop clinging to our autonomy and pride. It is passive in a sense, but not in the sense of lying on the floor waiting for something to happen. It's a strangely active passivity.

  2. Hi Matthew,

    I hear you. The other side of the coin for us, Evangelicals is activism. Sanctification become a series of things we must do. A good example is the evangelical quiet time. Quiet time is supposed to be a time we set aside for prayer, Bible reading and meditation. Unfortunately for some of us, it has become a burden, something we have to rush through before we get on with our 'real' life.

    I agree with you that sanctification should not be difficult. Jesus told us that his yoke is light. It is us that makes it heavy.