The Gospel within Discipleship: Spiritual Formation

The cry of the global Church is for every believer to engage in a life of discipleship. Disciples are intentional, disciplined learners who apprentice themselves to the person and way of Jesus. Disciples are outposts of the Kingdom of God in every geographical location, every sphere of influence, and every strata of society.

But do intentionality and personal discipline result in a lightness of being—or a heaviness of performing?

As earnest disciples, we find that whenever we set our wills to do the will of God, we are liabilities of righteousness and libels of God’s love. Our desire for well-disciplined lives and the mandate for mission give way to discouragement from the competing coup within our hearts and inertia of behaviors that hold us back.

What can change us from within and sustain us in our discipleship? It is abiding in God’s intentional and engaged love for us that we are made into faithful and loving disciples. It takes God to make us God-like—restoring us into the image of his Son (Romans 8:29). The Apostle Paul discovered this gospel when his own efforts failed him (Romans 7:7-24). Bursting with exuberance, Paul declares the good news of spiritual formation by abandoning self reliance and clinging in dependence on God’s ability to remake us from the inside out (Romans 7:25-8:30).

God’s Call to Spiritual Formation
What is meant by the term “spiritual formation,” and how do we cooperate with God’s intention to conform us to Christ? Spiritual formation refers to the Holy Spirit-driven process of refashioning the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes a reflection of the inner being of Christ himself.1

God intends for this “metamorphosis” to occur in every believer’s life.2 Since it is God’s intention, why do we not always experience ourselves or other Christians as “little Christs”?3

By faith, we are regenerated into a new birth, making us genuinely new, but not totally new.4 Why? Scripture reveals three dynamics of the progressive nature of spiritual formation.

  1. We are like infants who must eat in order to grow (1 Peter 2:2).

  2. We are insensitive to the presence of God and need continual awakening to his voice and initiatives (Hebrews 4:7-13; 2 Corinthians 3:18).
  3. We are deformed through the effects of sin in our identities and relationships and we need ongoing healing (Colossians 3:5-17; Romans 12:1-2).

Respectively, God calls us to learn, listen, and to live in the light.

Call to Learn
In discipleship, we grow into the full stature of Christ through feeding upon scripture as taught and modeled by people who are apprentices of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:13-16). We learn who we are in Christ and our place in God’s redemptive history.

The goal of discipleship is maturity of obedience, love, and the reproduction of faith in the lives of others. As disciples, we desire to honor God as we hunger for greater knowledge and faithfulness. Even so, we may find ourselves panting for more than knowledge and ministry provides.

Call to Listen
The Holy Spirit whispers God’s invitation to know him intimately. It comes as a thirst or longing for the living God, and when he speaks, we are challenged to listen (Psalm 62 and 63).5 Our busyness and efforts as “agents for God” prevent us from listening to the still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12).

Much of modern ministry substitutes God’s presence for a “functional culture that is driven by technology, schedules, and computers; a culture that moves at a faster and faster pace, driving out time for prayer and reflection.”6 God invites us into a conversational relationship of listening and responding, leading us back into a shared life with God.7 Listening is most effective in a secret place of intimate communion with God.8 Jesus showed us this “way” through his practice of Sabbath rest and time alone in silence and solitude (John 14:6).

Call to the Light
Embedded in the human psyche are wounds and brokenness that testify to the need for renewal of the inner life (cf. Romans 12:2). Within our heart is a deep pit of intergenerational sin and wounds, false identities we cling to for emotional security, and a host of fractured relationships. God wants to reclaim everything that is false and present us with our true self. God wants to identify what is broken and heal it in his love.

But God waits for our permission to do so. We grant permission by giving God access to what is hidden. Paul writes, “Anything exposed by the light becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:13).

Nothing remains hidden forever (Hebrews 4:13). Paul writes, “The sins of some people are conspicuous and precede them to judgment, while the sins of others follow them there.” Instead of being exposed, whether now or in the end, how much better to disclose what is hidden to a trusted spiritual friend.

We read, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). The bridge to humility and holiness is through self-disclosure to a soul friend—a person who incarnates the love and grace of Christ. Mature Christians have discovered the link between self disclosure and spiritual growth. The alternative is self protection through hiddenness. Self protection leads to a self deception that completely obliterates spiritual growth.9

Spiritually-formed Disciples
The change that comes from the renewal of our inner life leads to an irrepressible love for God and others. When we face our whole selves, both the best and the worst, and know the unconditional love of God at work within, we find ourselves able to love others with deep and unconditional love.10 Through learning, listening, and living in the light, disciples become expressions of the abiding love of God in Christ.

Endnotes

1. Adaptation of the definition offered by Willard, Dallas. 2002. Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 22.

2. Metamorphosis is the English cognate for the Greek word used by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:18.

3. C.S. Lewis speaks of God’s intent in this way: “[Christ] is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as He was when He created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge and eternity.” 1975. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 149.

4. Hoekema, Anthony A. 1996. “The Reformed Perspective.” In Five Views on Sanctification. Ed. Stanley N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA: Zondervan, 74.

5. See also Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. 2005. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 15.

6. Standish, Graham. 2007. Humble Leadership: Being Radically Open to God’s Guidance and Grace. Herndon, Virginia, USA: The Alban Institute, 75.

7. Willard fully exposits the biblical basis for a life of relational communication with God in his 1999 book, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press.

8. Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion: Volume I, III. 20. 29, 892.

9. Moon, Gary M. and David G. Benner. 2004. Spiritual Direction and the Care of Souls. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 79.

10. Barton, Ruth Haley. 2008. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry. Downers Grove, Illinois, USA: InterVarsity Press, 210.


Rev. Dr. Sara Singleton now pastors at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs after a 20-year career as a registered nurse. She earned a DMin in spiritual formation from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is the editor of a 2-volume audio devotional series, Hearts On Pilgrimage. She is married with two adult children and a granddaughter.