The apostle Paul maintained that from the moment of salvation, every believer is in a process of being formed into the image of Jesus Christ:
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
This is a remarkable statement, but it leads a thinking person to ask a couple of important questions: (1) What does it mean to be transformed into the image of Christ? and (2) How does it happen?
What Is Christ-Formation?
Theologians refer to the transformation process as Progressive Sanctification and others use the phrase Spiritual Formation, but I prefer to use the term Christ-formation because it is more descriptive of what is actually taking place.
In my new book, Unhindered Abundance, I define Christ-formation as “the overarching goal of the Christian life. It’s the result of a partnership between us and the Holy Spirit and is the practical outcome of what Jesus invited people to when he called them (and us) to be his disciples.”
How to Take on the Character of Christ:
To follow Jesus as one of his disciples is to become like him in his character and quality of life. The character qualities of Jesus would certainly include the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23) and would also include qualities like “compassion” (Matt. 9:36), servanthood (Mark 10:45), and humility (Phil. 2:7) to name a few. But the question is, how does this happen?
Taking on the character qualities of Jesus is a relational process composed of four primary dynamics.
1. The Holy Spirit
Becoming like Jesus is primarily the work of the Holy Spirt; he is the agent of change. Paul is clear that believers “are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18, emphasis mine).
2. Relationships with God and Others
Christ-formation takes place in the context of intimate relationships with God and other believers. Jesus likened our intimate connection to himself using the analogy of a vine and its branches: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). New Testament scholar D. A. Carson maintains that: “This fruit is nothing less than the outcome of persevering dependence on the vine, driven by faith, embracing all of the believer’s life and the product of his witness.”
Additionally, Christ-formation takes place within our closest relationships with other people, especially believers who can represent Christ to us.
God created human beings to need deeply attached relationships with others in order to grow and thrive. These strong attachments become the primary means of our character formation as we follow their example.
Paul alludes to the power of example when he writes: “Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do” (Phil. 3:17). Simply put, we take on the character qualities of the people to whom we are most attached.
3. Direct Participation
Christ-formation is an active process that includes our direct participation. Throughout the New Testament, we are exhorted to participate in the formation of our own character.
Paul exhorted Timothy to train yourself to be godly (1 Tim. 4:8). Peter writes: “make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Pet. 1:5-7), and Paul commands believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
Notice that Paul says to “work out” NOT “work for” your salvation. Salvation remains an act of God’s grace, not works (Eph. 2:8-9), but we must exert effort as we participate in our own Christ-formation.
4. Grace-Sustained Spiritual Disciplines
Practically, the effort we are to exert in our Christ-formation can be identified as grace-sustained spiritual disciplines.
These disciplines include Bible study, prayer, worship, fasting, silence and solitude, stewardship, service, and a variety of others. They act as means of spiritual exercise through which the Holy Spirit brings about transformation.
For example, the Bible contains the very words of God that are an essential part of Christ-formation. The effort on my part includes making the time in my schedule and sitting down to read my Bible. The growth that takes place is the work of the Holy Spirit.
In other words, I cannot make myself grow, but as I participate through spiritual disciplines, I cultivate an environment that facilitates growth. I think the example of a farmer is helpful here. A farmer cannot make crops grow, but he can plow the soil, plant the seed, and water and fertilize the seed—and then it grows.
The growth of crops is an indirect result of the farmer’s effort. In a similar way, this is how we participate with the Holy Spirit in our own Christ-formation. In Unhindered Abundance, I write: “direct participation—empowered by God’s grace and carried out in partnership with the Holy Spirit—becomes a powerful catalyst for change.”
Christ-formation is a partnership with the Holy Spirit that takes place in the context of relationships with God and others—primarily other believers—and requires direct participation as we participate in grace-sustained spiritual disciplines. These four dynamics work together to bring about the greater formation of our character to that of Jesus Christ.
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Ken Baugh was a successful pastor before a crippling experience of burnout disrupted his career and set him on a journey to better understand the dynamics of spiritual health. With a DMin from Talbot Theological Seminary, Ken is the founder and CEO of IDT Ministries. His latest book, Unhindered Abundance: Restoring Our Souls in a Fragmented World, released from NavPress in February 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Salem Web Network and Salem Media Group.
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