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As always, thank you and God bless you. - Pastor B.
Spiritual Formation - The Church, The Believer and the Holy Spirit (part 1)
God will diligently guard his creation. This fact leads his creation to some unique and interesting spiritual realities. First among these realities is the fact that God will protect and preserve the free will with which he has created human beings. God will go to great lengths to provide all of the information necessary in order for each member of his creation to make an informed decision about whether or not to choose him or choose the world. The fact of the matter is that we were made to worship – and we will. It is simply a matter of whom or what we will worship.
Every individual who learns about the Christ of God will indeed be confronted with the decision whether or not to turn his or heart away from the world and toward God; and I strongly believe that it is an autonomous personal decision that each individual makes. Only in very rare circumstances has God intervened in the life of a person in such a way as to practically make the decision for him (think Saul); but even then I contend that those people still have a choice and still make a choice.
Conversion, as we think of it, is a person turning away from the gods of this world and toward the God of the universe. How this is accomplished is as varied as the people who convert. We “convert” from loving and worshiping ourselves and our world to loving and worshiping our creator. We convert also from having the nature and character of Adam to having the nature and character of Christ. We are redeemed, purchased, by God at the price of his own pain and suffering. In essence, we convert from believing that we were created physical beings with a spiritual element to understanding that we are in fact spiritual beings brought into God’s physical creation by his will and sustained by his grace.
Conversion is first an intellectual experience. We hear the word of God and begin to explore him cognitively first. In short, we think about God and what we just heard about him. We decide whether or not we want to hear more or have heard enough. It is at this point that many will stop and stay for while believing that the issue is not of any great urgency. Other understand the urgency but have not the character to decide. To be sure, there is a significant minority of those who hear the Good News of redemption that do not take very much time to think about it before they make a decision – either to reject the news out of hand or accept it as the truth; but these people, as all do, first process the information cognitively.
It is entirely possible to accept the Gospel of the Christ as true solely on an intellectual basis. I know this because that is exactly what I did. I reasoned that what I had read and what people had taught me was in fact true and I chose to simply accept it as such. I believe that many people, especially those of wealthy, educated cultures, acquire their understanding of Christ and accept as true what is written about him on this basis. Moreover, by doing so it is entirely possible to live, for all appearances, what amounts to a Christian life. Again, I did this for a decade and enjoyed it very much. I was a Christian, my wife was a Christian and we were raising our children as Christians; as if Christian was simply an acquired set of characteristics that we manufactured for ourselves in our self-controlled lives such as, suburbanite, teacher, or weekend warrior.
The intellectual acceptance of the Truth is necessary but not enough. Jesus Christ was a person who walked the earth, ascended into heaven, and by the power of the Holy Spirit wants to live and breathe again in and through all human beings he left behind. This reality is much more of an emotional and spiritual experience. To be sure, it is an experience that must be chosen as well; but we must choose to go beyond the safety of our cognition and explore the uncertainties of relationship. Given the damage that our enemy Satan has already done to the concept of relationship in so many people, the faith and trust that this decision entails can be a major stumbling block for many people.
After I had accepted God on my terms, Satan hid me from Christ inside a large Methodist church. I do not write this flippantly, I believe that it is true. Knowing the plan that God had for my life and knowing that I had accepted as true the writings of scripture, but had never met the person of Jesus Christ, Satan used my desire to live a Christian life to his benefit. He presented to me every committee, every Sunday school class, every Wednesday night elective – knowing that I would rarely if ever say no. I ran around for years inside that church never having to come face-to-face with the Christ; never having to repent of my sin and hold myself accountable as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Conversion, ultimately, is an emotional and spiritual decision with powerful consequences. The best correlation that can be made is with the decision we make as humans to admit love for another person and then ask for and/or agree to their hand in marriage. It is that powerful when we make the decision to be in relationship with Christ for it is a decision of the heart, not the head, that is generated by the power of God; that is, the power of love. God knows when the heart is sincere and when it is, he gladly accepts our request to enter into relationship with him through Jesus. Having made the decision on these grounds, it can be said that conversion has taken place – that the individual has truly turned toward God.
At the moment of conversion we are both justified and sanctified by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are justified because the stain of our sin is washed clean. We are sanctified in that we are as a result made holy and wholly capable of standing spiritually in the presence of God. At the moment the Holy Spirit enters our being the relationship has begun. It is important to recognize this as the beginning of a relationship because sanctification is not only an act that occurs at the time our sincere hearts not only recognize but accept Jesus as the Christ of God; sanctification is a process that is begun at that time and will continue, through the relationship that is created, until the day of death. Sanctification is closely related to what we would call Christian spiritual formation for this reason.
Dallas Willard speaks on the point of truth that so many others do that people must stop trying to be spiritual and simply recognize the fact that they are spiritual. Understanding this sentiment will go a very long way in helping us understand the process of what we call spiritual formation. It is also a main point in understanding the process of sanctification as we grow into the new life that has been provided by Christ. To clarify, I am at a crossroads in my journey. On the one hand, I continue to listen to and use the language of “becoming like Christ.” I read that I am to imitate Christ, be like Christ, conform to Christ; but the deeper I travel that road, the more I come to realize that not only is that impossible, it is sinful.