Conforming to the Character and Conduct of Christ
By: Dr. Steven C. Riser
|By: Dr. Steven C. Riser; ©2010|
|The “good work” of conforming our lives to the character and conduct of Christ is a lifelong process traditionally known as “sanctification,” but more recently referred to as “Spiritual Formation.” It begins immediately after spiritual regeneration and ends when Christ returns and we become fully like Him.|
Text: Romans 8:29
Next to John 3:16, one of the most familiar verses in the New Testament is Roman 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” But how often do you hear the next verse: Romans 8:29? “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son….”
We can be confident that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). What is that good work? Paul says that “God is at work within you, helping you want to obey him, and then helping you do what he wants” (Phil. 2:13). That good work is conforming our lives to the character and conduct of Christ.
This good work is a lifelong process traditionally known as “sanctification,” but more recently referred to as “Spiritual Formation.” It begins immediately after spiritual regeneration and ends when Christ returns and we become fully like Him. The apostle John says, “Yes, dear friends, we are already God’s children, right now and we can’t even imagine what it is going to be like later on. But we do know this, that when he comes we will be like him, as a result of seeing him as he really is” (1 John 3:2).
What happens between now and then? Paul said in 2 Corinthians 3:18b, “But we Christians… can be mirrors that brightly reflect the glory of the Lord… as the Spirit of the Lord works within us, we become more and more like him.” We become like the ones with whom we closely associate.
In Titus 2:14 Paul said that Christ died “so that he could rescue us from constant falling into sin and make us his very own people, with cleansed hearts and real enthusiasm for doing kind things for others.” What is the nature and dynamic of the process of spiritual formation? That is the purpose of this article.
Understanding the Nature and Process of Spiritual Formation
What is spiritual formation? What does it mean to be conformed to the character of Christ? Spiritual formation is largely a function of the Spirit of God and the Word of God working in concert in the children of God. In Galatians 4:19, Paul longed for the time when Christ would be fully formed in his fellow believers. This process proceeds by changing people from the inside out through an ongoing relationship with the Spirit of Christ and the Body of Christ (the Church).
A healthy, vibrant, Christ centered congregation is the proper context for spiritual formation. According to Paul in Ephesians 4:13-15, what is the end result of this spiritual formation process?
- We all believe alike about our salvation and about our Savior, God’s Son and all become full-grown in the Lord – yes, to the point of being filled full with Christ. Then we will no longer be like children, forever changing our minds about what we believe because someone has told us something different or has cleverly lied to us and made the lie sound like the truth. Instead, we will lovingly follow the truth at all times-speaking truly, dealing truly, living truly and so become more and more in every way like Christ who is the Head of his body, the Church. Under his direction, the whole body is fitted together perfectly, and each part in its own special way helps the other parts, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. (TLB)
Since godly character is based on godly values, we must understand, accept, and inculcate godly (biblical) values in order to develop godly (Christlike) character. Only the Holy Spirit can make us holy. Spiritual formation at its core is a work of God’s grace in and through us.
What does God’s grace teach us? God’s grace gives us “the realization that God wants us to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures and to live good, God-fearing lives day after day” (Titus 2:12). Sad to say, today most people don’t have a clue of what God-fearing even means. God’s grace also gives us the desire and power to please God by trusting and obeying Him.
In addition to inculcating godly values, we need to learn to think God’s thoughts after Him. God said in Isaiah 55:8-9, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
What is the result of assimilating God’s Word into our lives? We develop a biblical perspective or worldview. This effects how we perceive reality. It effects the decisions that we make and the actions that we take. Most Christians don’t act like Jesus because they have not learned to think like Him. Paul mentions another result of renewing our mind with God’s Word in Romans 12:2, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. For what good or godly purpose? So that we may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. Again, Paul says in Ephesians 5:17, “…do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”
What is the objective that we hope to achieve in cultivating the mind of Christ? In 2 Corinthians 10:5b Paul says that we are to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” We do this by exposing the lies of Satan with the truth of God’s Word much like Jesus did when He was tempted by the Devil in Matthew 4. Paul even got so specific as to tell us what to think about. In Philippians 4:8b he said, “Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about.”
Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
Proverbs also says, “As a man thinks in His heart, so is he.” What is in our heart matters more than anything else as far as who we are, who we become and what becomes of us. Jeremiah 17:9-10 says, “The heart is the most deceitful thing there is and desperately wicked. No one can really know how bad it is! Only the Lord knows! He searches all hearts and examines deepest motives so he can give to each person his right reward, according to his deeds – how he has lived.”
This is why the Psalmist cries out in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test my thoughts. Point out anything you find in me that makes you sad, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” The heart that is regenerated by the Spirit and inhabited by Christ is the only real hope for humanity. It’s no wonder that Jesus said, in Matthew 4:4, “Scripture tells us that bread won’t feed men’s souls: obedience to every word of God is what we need.” (TLB)
When I was a child, I learned a song which said, “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” That song should be our heartfelt prayer and plea today and every day for you and me! For, the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.
You need to understand something in order to care for it. Specifically, you need to understand your heart – your spiritual core – in order to properly care for it. Just as our physical heart is at the core of our physical being, so our spiritual heart is at the core of our spiritual being. While the term heart in the Bible is used in various ways, it is worth noting that the heart is not just the seat of the emotions, in the Bible, the heart thinks, feels and acts. You could say that our heart is our spiritual CEO. The paraphrase of Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your affections. For they influence everything else in your life.” The heart directs the life. The heart is where the decisions and choices are made. We could call it the executive center of our lives.
Here’s what most people don’t know: the primary purpose of the heart. The heart is designed as a CEO to bring together all the essential parts of our lives and to organize them around God and His will for our lives. We are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. God wants us to be fully integrated under His loving authority. He wants us to share our whole lives with Him and relate everything to Him. He wants us to practice the presence of God moment by moment throughout the day. It is not surprising that the word salvation means to be made whole – to have the image of God fully restored. Ephesians 4:22-23 says, “Now your attitudes and thoughts must all be constantly changing for the better. Yes, you must be a new and different person, holy and good. Clothe yourself with this new nature.”
There seems to be some confusion as to whether or not man is bi-part or tri-part, that is, whether he is body and soul or whether he is body, soul and spirit. Perhaps the reason for this confusion is that a non-Christian is spiritually dead, while a Christian is spiritually alive. Perhaps we could say that an unregenerate person is bi-partite and a regenerate person is tri-partite?
In 1 Thessalonians 5:23, Paul prays for believers: “May the God of peace himself make you entirely pure and devoted to God; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept strong and blameless until that day when our Lord Jesus Christ comes back again.”
The central principle of the dysfunction and corruption brought about by sin is self-worship. The central principle in the spiritual formation and transformation process is self-denial. You can’t have it both ways; it must be one or the other. That’s why Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
What exactly does Jesus mean when he says we must deny ourselves? We must leave the Kingdom of Self before we can enter the Kingdom of God. That’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:15: [Christ] “died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” To deny yourself means to deny yourself the right to be number one in your life – to deny yourself the right to sit on the throne in your heart. To deny yourself means to give up worshipping yourself.
We could say that spiritual formation involves the process of moving from self-centered worship to Christ-centered self-denial. How do you move from self-conceit to self-denial? Apart from the gracious activity of God’s Word and Spirit in our hearts, this transformation would be impossible. What is needed, necessary and imperative is supernatural enablement.
What are the basic elements of the spiritual development process? 1) You need a vision of God’s general purpose for your life – to become more conformed to the image of Christ; 2) You have to have an intention or a desire to following God’s plan for His glory; 3) You need the necessary spiritual resources and an effective means or method of achieving the goal.
In order for a godly habit to be formed there needs to be: 1) Correct knowledge – accurate and relevant information; 2) Sufficient motivation to move in the direction you need to go; and an 3) Effective strategy that enables you to get where you want to go.
Do you know what the transition is between breaking an ungodly habit and establishing a godly habit? One word: discipline. This is why Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:7, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” “Discipline” is a synonym for “Training.” Discipline means “structured training in right living.” (Please note: This is where the relevance of practicing the classic “Spiritual Disciplines” comes into play, but that is not the subject of this article, see another article on this web site.)
This principle involves doing something that you are not used to doing and may not even enjoy doing until such time as you are in the habit of doing it and actually enjoying it. Perhaps a good personal example of this would be developing the habit of swimming four miles a week. Eighteen months ago I could not swim a mile and did not enjoy working out. Today, I swim four miles a week, I enjoy it and I miss it when my schedule is interrupted.
Here are three key questions that every fully devoted disciple of Christ needs to ask:
- Do you have a biblical vision of what life in the Kingdom of God is designed to be like?
- Do you have a strong commitment to become the kind of person God created you to be?
- Do you have the means and spiritual resources necessary to carry out God’s divine design?
It is clear from Scripture that the battle with sin is fought and it is won or lost in the mind. As a man thinks in his heart so is he. We are not only transformed by the renewing of our minds but we are to bring every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. According to Romans 8:5-6, “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” What are the ungodly governing images [specific] and ideas [general] that occupy your mind? Our unbiblical or ungodly ideas and images need to be replaced with the truths of God’s Word. One of the serious problems in our culture is the inability of most people to think critically.
One of the key missing ingredients for most people in the process of spiritual formation is gaining a clear understanding of who we are in Christ. Specifically, how does the Bible describe all those who are “in Christ”? One way to answer this question is to read all the verses in the New Testament that include the words “in Christ.” Another way is to read an article I wrote for the Ankerberg website called “Who Do You Think You Are?”
Another key in spiritual formation is learning to live by faith rather than by feelings. When you walk or live by faith, you are essentially doing two things: 1) You are taking God at His Word, and 2) You are seeking to act accordingly. While feelings have their place in the Christian life, they are not a reliable basis for making wise or godly decisions on a daily basis. If your feelings are the outgrowth of unbiblical ideas or ungodly desires, they will lead you in the wrong direction. They may even lead into serious addiction. The godly attitudes of a Spirit-controlled person are listed in Galatians 5:22-23 and they are called the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
As we learn to live a life of faith we also develop hope, and faith and hope form the foundation of a life filled with “agape” love. As Paul say, faith expresses itself in love. First Timothy 1:5: “the aim of such instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith.”
In this article, I have presented a general overview of the spiritual formation process. In closing, let us keep our eyes on the prize: the treasure is nothing less than Christ Himself. Our attitude must be like John the Baptist who said Jesus “must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The end result of the process is Christlikeness – humanity as God always intended. Personal spiritual transformation only comes from above by the Word and Spirit of God. Transformation comes about when God gives us the knowledge, desire and power to change the way we think. Changing the way we think, will impact on the way we feel and act. We put on the character of Christ by putting off the old man and putting on the new man created in righteousness and true holiness. As we learn to enjoy God and experience the joy of the Lord, we will discover that the joy of the Lord is our strength.
We must lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and run with endurance the race that is set before us. We need to discover what God wants us to do and do it mindful of the fact that He will give us the knowledge, desire and power to please Him. As we seek to run the race that God has put before us we are to keep our eyes on Christ who is our: Master, Model and Mentor.
We find joy and comfort in the fact that we are not running this race alone but others are running with us to encourage us along the way. Spiritual growth does not take place in a vacuum but in a social context. It takes others to bring out the best in us. As Paul said, “the outward man is perishing, but the inward man is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16).
In closing, here are some key questions for your consideration:
In what areas is my will not surrendered to God’s will?
In what areas does my fallen character need to become more like Christ?
Do my thoughts, feelings and actions reveal that I am in God’s Kingdom?
Am I mastering my body or is my body mastering me?
Am I engaging, most of the time, in self-worship or self-denial?
Am I seeking to be used by God to spiritually mentor others?
What changes do I need to make or what initiatives do I need to take?
Am I offering the character and the love of Christ to those around me?